The Fitbit Versa – early thoughts

I’ve just bought the latest smart watch offering from Fitbit, the Fitbit Versa.

I’ve been a big fan of smart watches, my first being the original Pebble watch which I bought back in 2013. I’ve also owned the follow up Pebble watch, an original Apple Watch, an Apple Watch series 2 and now the Fitbit Versa. In between these , I’ve also owned various fitness bands including the UP bands and various Fitbit hardware.

I’ll say from the outset that in my opinion, overall the Apple Watch is by far the best smart watch on the market for most people. Whilst it falls short of being a outstanding health tracker, it makes up for it in general functionality. Some of its features are unrivalled including the ability to make and receive calls, send sms/ messages and also watchOS has a plethora of supported third party apps.

So why did I get the Versa? Three reasons :

1. It’s a far better health tracker than the Apple Watch. Aside from more accurate step monitoring, the Versa is an outstanding sleep tracker (one of my areas of interest). Apple Watch has been non existent in this space. Some third party apps support it , but the data is inaccurate and nowhere near the accuracy of Fitbit ie REM, light and deep sleep detection.

2. Cross platform: I hate being locked into Apple’s ecosystem. I’ll be moving back to Android soon as a primary device and I want to be able to use my versa with it.

3. Two becomes one: until I bought the Vera , I was using a Fitbit Flex (for steps and sleep) and an Apple Watch. Now I’ll just be able to use a single watch. Which, by the way, is a much lighter and compact form factor compared to the Apple Watch .

So far so good. I’m very happy with the Versa. Time will tell (no pun intended) which device wins out for me. Currently I’m missing some of the Siri features from Apple Watch (such as voice controlled timers and Apple Pay) but there’s no doubt the heath tracking features are far better on the Versa.

Why I quit Facebook – permanently

I have stopped using Facebook. Let me rephrase that. I never really used Facebook that often – but I have deleted my account. Permanently.

In short, I don’t miss it. I had never really got much value out of it. The issue for me is broader than the recent controversies around how Facebook uses your private data. Let’s be honest – if you are genuinely surprised that facebook uses your data in shady ways then, frankly, you probably shouldn’t be online at all. I see no philosophical difference between how Facebook uses your personal data than how a supermarket store card does. In fact, at least Facebook has the decency to tell you it will use it.

No – the issue for me is around three areas: trust, manipulation and attention.

1. Trust. I do not believe that Facebook’s leadership can be trusted with my data. This is an organisation that has consistently pushed their terms of service to the limit. By design they make managing your public and private data extremely complex. The numerous privacy settings are a minefield to navigate. For average users, understanding what is public verses what is private is next to impossible. At best it’s just a sloppy UI – at worse it is complexity by design.

2. Manipulation – this is where Facebook excels. A proprietary algorithm working behind the scenes gets to decide what you see and read in your feed. This may be fine if family photos and status updates are all you care about. But for many, Facebook is broader than that. It has become the basis of how many people consume news and public opinion. I’m concerned that rather than bring people together, it divides people. Left verses right. Liberal verses conservative. Without balanced news, I see Facebook as one of the root causes of our increasingly divided society.

3. Attention – Facebook, like many other social media needs your attention to survive. Eyeballs on the screen is essentially how it makes money. The algorithms it uses, the adverts it runs and the content you get to see in your feed are deliberately designed to take your attention. It’s easy to dismiss this and blame the users – but just look at just how many people you see out there with their faces glued to their smartphones. These people aren’t coding or creating content, they are catching up on the latest gossips from their feeds.

So thank you Facebook, but you’re not for me. I’m out.

Out with TuGo in with the new…

Occasionally I dip into some of the key web services I depend on to test the market to see if there are better alternatives. For example, as part of my move away from a number of cloud services I’ve come to heavily rely on I shifted across from the likes of Google Apps to my office-suite on my Synology server. Occasionally, I am forced to move from a particularly service because it’s either changed its terms and conditions – or the provider has stopped running it. One recent example of this is O2’s TuGo service. Until the end of last month I had been using TuGo since it launched almost 4 years ago. It was excellent. It gave me the ability to make and receive UK calls via my existing 02 mobile number anywhere in the world using the TuGo app and an internet connection.

When O2 decided to scrap the service last month I was devasted. But every cloud….

Introducing Freedompop

After a bit of digging around I’ve discovered a new entry into the UK mobile market – Freedompop . They seem to be a new Silicon Valley start up that’s launched in the UK. They run off Three’s network and offer monthly sim only tarrifs starting at a bargain £7 a month. But what sold me was that they are completly VOIP based and SMS/calls can be made and received via their excellent iOS or Android app. So, intrigued,  I quickly signed up. I’m expecting my sim to arrive at my home in the next few days and I’ll soon begin the PUK transfer across. However, in the meantime my temporary mobile number was instantly up and running via their app. I’ve successfully tested it and it works a charm. What’s particularly satisfying is just how much better the service seems to be compared to 02. Tarrifs vary – but all are very good deals. UK data allowances seem a bit on the low side – currently the maximum amount is 4GB. However, unused data does roll over.

So far so good. Like I said every cloud…. I’ll report back once my PUK transfer is complete.

 

The future of Sonos

For the first time ever I’m beginning to question the strategy behind Sonos. This was always a company on the bleeding edge of innovation and I’m genuinely concerned about their future. The signs are there:

  1. They promised integration with Amazon Echo over a year ago – there’s still no sign of even the beta software update.
  2. Amazon have innovated and, in my opinion, overtaken Sonos in terms of features in their Echo range of products. They release updates weekly, support more and more third party services and are just simply easier to use. Only just last week they quietly rolled out a group feature – enabling speakers to be listened to at the same time.
  3. The reliability of my Sonos network has deteriorated lately. Unreliable internet is no longer a problem on my network – so that’s ruled out. But I’m finding that radio (TuneIn) frequently drops out and speakers struggle to connect to my music library at times.
  4. The app is hard to use. It’s something I’ve long been critical of, but in an era of voice commands the interface is feeling tired and awkward to use.

I love sonos and have been an advocate for years. I’ve even been an official tester of their software (under a NDA). However, I’m concerned about what’s going on with the company. With the growth of Amazon Echo and undoubtedly the future success of Apple HomePod, Sonos needs to nail their Echo integration as soon as possible and combine it with a major tech overhaul.
Having quality speakers is not an argument anymore for them – I’d argue that’s made them complacent. The Amazon Echo approach is based on flexibility. For example they allow the speakers to be paired with any Bluetooth speaker you want (getting around the speaker quality issues). Plus, there are already reports coming in that Apple’s HomePod sounds superior to the Sonos Play 5 flagship speaker.

I hope I am wrong to be this concerned. I also hope the Sonos upcoming October announcement offers up something special. But for the time being I’m not buying any more Sonos speakers until their future becomes a bit more clear.

Taking back control of my data

With a number of recent high profile hacks combined with my growing sense of caution about storing my data with third parties online, I have decided to start an ambitious project of shifting over my entire cloud data to a NAS.

It’s not going to be easy but I’m increasingly not convinced that my data is secure online anymore.

Sure I take precautions, I run two factor on all my main online services and use LastPass. I also trust many of the companies I store my data with; such as Google, Apple (especially), Dropbox and Evernote. But the issue for me is more about ownership and control of my data. Post-Snowden, I no longer have the confidence that these companies will, in the long term, be able to guarantee that my data will be securely held and not be vulnerable to Government agencies, third party companies and others.

In short, I want to know exactly where my data is, how it is secured and who is accountable for its security.

Evolution

These are not new concerns for me. When I bought my first NAS in 2015 (ReadyNas 214) my plan back then was to pull all my private media such as videos and music into a single location. The objective then though was slightly different. It was about bandwidth management and designed to reduce my dependency on online media streaming. It worked well – it still does. My entire music library plus other media sit comfortably on a secure server on my network.

But that’s only part of the picture. What the setup lacks is a viable alternative for file storage, secure notes and other more private data I wish to retain ownership of.

What I’ve realised is that my Netgear ReadyNas 214 is not the right product for my needs, given my desire to move away from third party cloud services. I have outgrown it.

The solution

I’ve been reading and hearing great things about Synology NAS hardware. They offer quality hardware but most importantly run an incredibly powerful OS with hundreds of well supported apps.

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I have just ordered the Synology DS 216+II two bay NAS. From what I have researched and heard, this looks like the ultimate solution for what I’m trying achieve.

Synology OS and hardware supports multiple apps which offer Evernote, Dropbox and photo storage equivalents – but with the fundamental difference of data storage being on my own server. If the project works really well, I also plan to run my own mail server and map over my domain name to it.

So the project has begun. It won’t be easy. But I’m excited. Because above all else I’m determined to pull back all my cloud data to where it belongs – with me.

Platform emancipation

I love Android. Always have done. But over the years since I’ve been using it in parallel to iOS I have generally found iOS superior. iOS lacks the flexibility of Android, but the consistency of use, the higher quality apps and seemless integration of hardware and software has always made iOS such a great experience.

Over the last few years, i’ve been on a journey of trying to become platform agnostic. I’ve invested in cloud services which, by definition, are all platform independent (such as EverNote, numerous Google services and Microsoft Office365.) Locally, I’ve invested in a NAS and running my music library off it, together with Plex (media / server).

I’m also heavily invested in the ‘internet of things’. All my devices from Philips Hue lighting , Sonos, WeMo switches, Canary and most recently my Amazon Echo (full review to follow soon) can all run/be accessed on any platform of choice.

With all that infrastructure in place, I’m now at the point where I’m changing a number of my computing devices.

img_0034My first choice, is that I’m finally ditching my iPhone as my primary phone and replacing it with an Android phone – the outstanding OnePlus 3. (I still own the OnePlus 1 – which I loved) Why? Because, I miss Android and it’s flexibility and secondly because, as I blogged recently, I find it difficult to justify iPhone prices anymore. But perhaps, more importantly – I don’t like what Apple has become to its millions of users. It’s a fashion accessory. It’s a must have item. Folk want to be seen with the latest iPhone because, like any designer label it demonstrates wealth, style and prestige. The type of users that now seem to dominate iPhones sales are fashionistas – the original geeks are few and far between. Ironically, they care less about what the iphone is capable of and more about what the latest colour is. In short, it’s crass. I no longer want to be a part of it. I’m going back to my linux roots and intend to move forward with an Android device in hand once more.

I’m also planning to ditch my MB Pro. (I’ve already handed off my MB Air). In short, I only use it now to maintain my server. It’s surplus to requirements. I plan to buy either a ChromeBook or a laptop optimised for running Ubuntu Linux (such as the Dell XPS developers edition).

With these changes in place, by the end of the year, the only Apple device I’ll actually own is my iPad Pro 12.9” . (Which I absolutely love). In fact, it’s now my go to computer of choice. And since my break-through of being able to produce and edit my weekly podcast,  www.blackonblues.com , I can see myself sticking with it for a very long time.

 

From Evernote to OneNote 

I’ve been a loyal Evernote premium users since April 2008. I’ve always loved the company. But sadly not anymore. Their new 2 device only pricing structure makes little sense to me.

Finally Microsoft have released the Evernote exporter to OneNote. So I’m moving over. Fingers crossed the transition works. I’ll keep you posted.
But until then, thanks for the memories Evernote. But I see more value from OneNote.

update: Having played around with OneNote I have to say I just didn’t like the UI. Far too much skeuomorphic design for my liking and not enough granularity. I’ll stick with Evernote. On the positive – it’s always good practice to routinely check the market for alternative apps. This little exercise confirmed to me that Evernote still meets my needs.

Thoughts ahead of the iPhone 7 launch 

So it’s the Apple iPhone launch tomorrow, presumably to be labeled as ‘iPhone 7/plus’. 

Expect to be told it’s the best iPhone yet. And expect to be told that the decision to ditch the 3.5mm headphone jack is because Apple are by nature one of the most forward looking visionary technology companies in the world. 

Prepare to marvel at the incredible duel lens array camera on the iPhone 7+ and be inspired by the ability to shot 4k video at 60 frames per second. Perhaps even let them tell you why you absolutely need 256GB of storage. And expect to be blown away by the new black colour. 

My thinking over the last few months has significantly shifted away from these annual launches. 

Mobile phone technology peaked about three years ago. In my opinion, if your phone is an iPhone 5 or newer, is working fine and still holding its battery charge then keep it.

If you do wish to get a new phone, for the first time in years, I think I’ll genuinely find it difficult to recommend spending Apple iPhone amounts of money anymore. 

Premium prices for premium handsets feels pretty unnecessary in 2016. Companies such as OnePlus offer top spec flagship phones for less than half the price of typical top spec iPhones or Samsung Galaxy lines. 

I’ve reluctantly concluded that the value proposition for an iPhone is no longer there anymore. 

Of course I’ll be watching the launch tomorrow – if only to see how the heck they justify selling a phone without a headphone jack.