PicoBrew Pico Review

In the most recent episode of Bad Voltage, I reviewed the PicoBrew Pico. Tune in to listen to the ensuing discussion and the rest of the show.

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Brewing beer is a complex and subtle mix of art and science. As a fan of both craft beer and technology, when I stumbled upon the Pico by PicoBrew I was intrigued. For those not familiar with the Pico, it’s a device that semi-automatically brews 5 liters of fresh craft beer at home in about 2 hours using grain and hop PicoPaks from dozens of breweries worldwide. From well known beers such as Dead Guy Ale from Rogue and Brew Free or Die from 21st Amendment, to niche beers from small local breweries scattered around the world that are unlikely to be available outside their direct locale, the selection is good and still growing rapidly. You’re also able to create your own beer from scratch via the Freestyle option that lets you choose a base style and then customize with around a dozen grain options, a half dozen hop varieties and the optional ability to dry hop.

The Pico guides you through the first few brewing steps over the course of roughly two hours, however like with any home brew, you need to wait between a few days and up to a couple of weeks for your beer to ferment and carbonate. I’ve heard it described as the Keurig of beer, but I don’t think that’s an apt characterization. Making beer with the Pico is somewhere between traditional home brewing and and a K-Cup type experience, which InBev claims to be working on incidentally. With that in mind, on to the actual device.

The Pico is a fairly large device, measuring 16″ x 12″ x 14″ and weighing in at 24 pounds. That may make it a difficult to accommodate for some. As the initial shipment comes with a PicoPak, a brewing keg, a dispensing keg, and quite a few accessories the delivery box is massive. Once you unpack everything initial setup is a breeze. Simply plug in the device, connect it to your wifi, and then associate it with your Pico account. The only thing left is the initial rinse, which is automated, and cleaning/sanitizing all the accessories and kegs. As with traditional home brewing, you better get used to cleaning and sanitizing as there is a lot of it involved. If you were expecting to hit a button, get beer, and be done let me allay you of that idea right now.

With everything gleaming and sanitary you’re ready for your first brew. The first part of the brewing process involves inserting the PicoPak into the main step filter. Each PicoPak is automatically recognized by the device and comes with a Hops Pak and a Grain Pak. From there you connect the brewing keg, which uses standard ball lock connectors, add some distilled water and start the process. For most recipes you can adjust the ABV (alcohol content) and IBU (bitterness), but nothing else. While the on-screen directions are usually clear, I recommend keeping the manual handy for the first couple batches. Roughly two very noisy hours later you have the smell of fresh bread in the air and brewed wort in your keg. You can track the progress of your brew, in real-time, online. Follow the cleaning and sanitizing instructions on the device and let the wort cool to the correct brewing temperature, which is noted on the Pak. From there you pitch your yeast, watch the airlock bubble for between a few days and a couple weeks, then rack the beer into either the serving keg or your kegerator system. While they offer a method to “fast ferment” your wort, I recommend sticking with the standard fermentation process. You can carbonate the beer with the priming sugar that comes with the PicoPak or force carbonate using the included adapter. You now have fresh homemade beer.

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How is that beer? I’ve brewed a few different styles from multiple breweries and the results have been mixed. My initial brew was a Buffalo Sweat Stout and it came out really good. In fact, some people that tried it didn’t believe I brewed it at home. On the other end of the spectrum, the Dead Guy Ale tasted off to the point of being almost undrinkable. As I brew more recipes from additional breweries I am curious to see which experience becomes the norm. Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to try the Freestyle option yet, but I plan to very soon and will update with results when I do.

Note that new Pico devices also ship with a sous vide adapter. My Pico did not, but the company has stated they plan to ship the adapter to everyone eventually. Looking at the instructions, however, it’s much more complicated than a traditional sous vide. It’s pretty clear the company was committed to including the functionality because it was promised in their kickstarter, and they should be commended for this. It may be a decent way to test whether you like cooking sous vide, but if you’re serious about it I suspect you’ll want a proper setup sooner than later. I still use the Anova I reviewed in an previous episode and recommend it.

So, what’s the Bad Voltage verdict? At $799 the device is a fair bit more expensive than a traditional home brew setup. While it automates much of the process, there is still quite a bit of manual cleaning, sanitizing, and other work that must be done and the “beer in two hour” pitch is a little disingenuous. PicoPaks run between $19-$29, which translates to around $10-15 per growler of beer. It will be interesting to see how many breweries come on board and how consistent the end result is. So far the company has been very receptive to feedback and seem genuinely interested in listening to customers and improving the product, so I’m encouraged. PicoBrew deserves credit for making the brewing process simpler and removing some variables without making it much less authentic. I suspect if you really enjoy craft beer and live somewhere a good variety of it is difficult to procure, the device could be a compelling purchase. I also suspect many will consider it far too expensive, too complicated, and too inconsistent to justify the cost or effort involved. Note the company also makes a device called the Zymatic which is a true all-grain brewing appliance that is almost akin to a miniaturized commercial brewery. At $2,000 it’s a major investment but it also comes with the ability to sell PicoPaks in the BrewMarkepace, so may be an option for those looking to break into commercial brewing.

UPDATE: After recording the show I contacted PicoBrew with the following question: “If PicoBrew were to fail as a company, would the device be rendered useless? The fact that you cannot add your own ingredients to a pak would seem to indicate this is the case. Am I missing something? Thanks.”

They once again responded extremely quickly (under thirty minutes) with the following: “You are not missing anything and that is a quite valid concern. To alleviate this concern, we can promise two things:

1.  We’re not going anywhere.  We have a quite solid business plan and a quite large purse to keep us going for many years to come.
2.  If we were to go out of business, we would make sure our customers, those who trust and support us, are not screwed in our passing.  We would release all software surrounding our products and let the community build themselves a working server to support their appliances as well as release how to build your own Pak.”

–jeremy

Moto 360 Sport Review (AKA the worst customer support experience I’ve ever had)

I’m an avid runner. And while I’ve run with an Android phone and various apps for quite some time, I’ve been increasingly wanting an Android Wear device that would make my many Garmin wearing running mates covetous. Enter the Moto 360 Sport, one of the first true Android GPS-enabled running smart watches. Considering how much I liked the Moto 360 Gen 2, I was eagerly awaiting the 360 Sport, which was announced at the same time as the Gen 2 but had a later release date.

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The 45mm device comes with the same size 1.37″ display (including flat tire) as the Gen 2, but the AnyLight Hybrid display makes it easily readable even in sunny conditions. The silicone strap comes in Black, White, and Flame Orange but as it’s part of a unibody construction it is not changeable. While many reviewers have found the strap to be a lint magnet, after over a month of use I did not find that to be an issue. The device has an optical heart rate monitor, barometric altimeter, accelerometer, ambient light sensor, gyroscope and a 300mAh battery. Like the Gen 2, it is IP67 dust and water resistant.

Moving on to using the device, I found the construction to be solid and the watch comfortable to wear even during long runs. Most popular running apps have Android Wear support at this point, although I’ve found most (I regularly use both Strava and Endomondo and extensively tested Runtastic, Runkeeper, Map My Run, and Ghostracer) have at least one annoying issue that needs to be addressed before being a true competitor to dedicated running watches. The platform also seems to be a bit temperamental, which resulted in me missing out on data points for a couple interesting runs. For example, the data for my Boilermaker run (a 15k) shows over an hour of activity but a distance traveled of zero. That particular issue seems to related to a known bug with Endomondo and Wear devices that have GPS. On the note of the GPS, I found it to be roughly as accurate as my phone GPS, although getting a lock takes substantially longer. It’s less useful than I hoped though, as using the GPS and active display means the battery life isn’t sufficient for longer runs. The device has 4GB of internal memory which you can play music from, although I did not test this feature. I found the heart rate monitor to be accurate enough to be useful and a nice addition to my running metrics.

So, what’s the verdict? Although the Moto 360 Sport lacks more advanced features such as cadence and VO2 max, it’s a very capable device. For shorter runs it will allow you to leave the smartphone at home, and for long runs being able to see stats during your run while being able to move your phone from an armband to a pouch makes for a more enjoyable experience. The display really is top notch. With the original MSRP of $299 already marked down to $199 it’s a device I would have tacitly recommended now and as the platform matures I could have seen that turn into a much stronger recommendation. I was definitely looking forward to the second iteration of the device.

Enter Motorola Support

Unfortunately after 47 days of use, the device rebooted while I was running then shut off. Once I got home and put it on the charger it went into a boot loop. I did some research online and found out some other people had a similar issue. While most weren’t able to fix their device, I found one suggestion that involved completely draining the battery then charging it overnight. This worked a single time, but during the next run the device shut off and further research and troubleshooting were not able to resuscitate it. I was a little bummed, but these things happen with electronic devices and I went to the Motorola support site to start the RMA process. This is where the experience gets unfortunate and things did not start out well.

I tried multiple times to begin the process online, but received the following error: “100-02. Oops!!!” After that error persisted for a few days, I finally called support. Unfortunately support was not able to verify the serial number on my device, despite multiple attempts which included me sending them a photo of the sticker affixed to the box which contains both the SKU and serial number. After some back and forth I ask for an RMA despite the serial number issue, as the device comes with a year warranty and has not been out for even close to a year yet. I understand they have legitimate reasons for needing the serial number, but they can get that off the device once they have it. In this context, it’s not needed to validate warranty coverage. The rep said they could not proceed without a “scanned copy of the receipt”, despite me pointing out that 100% of Moto 360 Sports have to be in warranty. I also explained that as this is 2016 I purchased the device online and do not have a receipt to scan. After some additional back and forth, on August 2nd I send them a screenshot of the online order, while also pointing out this is a pretty silly thing to have to do. At this point I just want to get the process moving.

On August 4th I get a response saying: “In regards the replacement/repair process, we get an error from the system, in that case we opened a VHD ticket which is going to have a resolution within 24 to 48 business hours”

On August 8th, I get an update: “I wanted to let you know that I am following up your case, and that I have not received confirmation that the VHD ticket has been solved, but I already verified with the team in charge of it, they told me they are working on it.”

At this point I reach out to @Moto_support, but am told: “Please follow up with us via email”. I also now note that I am using this device to write a review for a site that gets quite a bit of traffic, hoping that will help expedite things. It does not.

On August 10th, I get an additional update: “I am contacting you to provide you updates about the VHD ticket submitted, it is still being worked by the team in charge.” It’s now been over a week since I initially opened a ticket with the support rep.

On August 11th the VHD issue is solved. They want me to ship them the device so they can evaluate it and then either repair or replace it, or give them $25 for the “Advanced Exchange program”. I explain that after over a week of waiting, the fee on the AE program should be waived and a device should be sent ASAP. They eventually agree. Via the email ticket I give them all contact information as requested. Shortly after I get a voice mail from Motorola with no callback number and no email contact info that ends with “just email us back, okay”. I guess this means reply to the ticket, which I do.

On the 12th, I get a call from Motorola. They now say the fee cannot be waived because the system will not let this happen, but it can be refunded after the fact. I point out that this directly contradicts what was previous said by them. They persist. I eventually capitulate and give them my credit card information. The experience at this point is getting really frustrating and taking up far too much time (believe it or not, this is just an overview of the event which included quite a few calls and back-and-forth emails over trivial issue and re-re-re-confirming information). I get an RMA email while I am still on the phone with the rep, which is encouraging. I just want to run and I now think a new device is on the way. I am sorely mistaken.

A short time later I get an email saying the credit card is “invalid”. We confirmed the number on the phone three times; it is not invalid. During the next call I note that it’s odd that the card would be invalid as I received an RMA. I am told: “even though you received shipping labels or tracking numbers, the system sends the emails automatically, that is why you received them, but in the system they did not go through”. This makes no sense, but I give my credit card details again. I get another RMA while on the phone, but notice that it’s for the incorrect device (a Moto 360 Gen 2, not a Moto 360 Sport). Looking back, the first RMA was also for the incorrect device. It is explained to me that this is normal and not an issue. A couple hours later I am told that my credit card was now declined. I have used this exact card before and after the RMA and the card is nowhere near its limit. I call the credit card company. There have been zero attempts from Motorola and zero declined transactions for the day. I am now starting to lose my patience.

On the next call I explain that the number is correct and the card has not been declined. They suggest I try to submit the request online again. I get the same “100-02. Oops!!!” error. I point out how ridiculous this is getting. The rep now suggests that I use a different serial number than the one that is on the box. This does not seem normal. Using the new serial number does get me past the previous error, however, and may explain the incorrect device issue. I now get a credit card error. I point out that it’s odd that the system never asks for a CVV, but they don’t seem to know what I am referring to. I try the online system again with a new card. One that has a zero balance and that I rarely use. This time I am met with success. They double check the system and everything looks good. Hooray!

Except, no. On the 15th I get an email: “I am contacting you to provide you updates about your case, I was checking it, and I found that unfortunately the order is cancel for invalid or missing Credit Card number”. I explain that this is odd even for this increasingly odd situation as I now not only have a 3rd RMA, which has been confirmed by Motorola, but a tracking number from FedEx. Surely the tracking number means a replacement device is on the way. I am told: “You have received FedEx shipping confirmation because shipping information and credit card information are being processed by a different systems.” I check my credit card statement and I have two pending transactions for different amounts:

Aug 12, 2016 MOTOROLA MOBILITY LLC $244.68
Aug 12, 2016 MOTOROLA MOBILITY LLC $250.86

They now ask for a “bank statement”. I tell them in no uncertain terms that they are not getting one and am now starting to lose my temper. They ask me to submit the request again from scratch. I point out how absurd this entire interaction has been and also note that the Fed Ex tracking number they gave shows that something has actually shipped. Between that and the pending charges, I think their system is incorrect and the third RMA has been processed. They do not agree. They also do not have an explanation for the multiple charges for different amounts, neither of which they see on their end.

On the 16th they touch base on the ticket. I respond with: “To confirm: All RMA’s have failed in some way and nothing has shipped, despite me receiving a tracking number. Is that correct?”

I received the following response on August 17th: “That is correct all RMA’s have failed, and nothing has been shipped despite the tracking numbers you received.” I also received a package from Motorola. Containing a Motorola DROID phone. A PHONE! I can’t even begin to fathom how that’s even possible, considering the packing list actually says “MOTO3602SPORT – MOTO 360 (2ND GEN)” on it. I called my credit card company again, and at no time were any transactions declined. They do see both pending transactions from “MOTOROLA MOBILITY LLC” but “they are set to fall off your account because they were never finalized by the merchant”. Once they are no longer pending, I figure the phone is a gift and I plan to see if the Moto 360 Sport will blend. The DROID is a Verizon model, if anyone knows a charity in need please contact me. In the mean time, I’m in the market for an Android Wear running watch.

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Based on the above experience I must unfortunately recommend avoiding all Motorola products at this time, which is a shame. The outrageously bad support is a large blemish on a company that is putting out solid quality products. I still think the Moto 360 Gen 2 is one of the best Android Wear watches currently available. In fact, I’ve purchased the device for family and friends and it’s been very well received. Quite a few people have told me they purchased one based on my review and the feedback has been positive. I like the Moto 360 Sport and some of the phones look very nice. That said, the support experience above was so terrible, the Motorola internal systems are so broken and the issues so systemic in nature that I would not feel right if one single person had to go through the above based on a recommendation I have made. So, at least for now, keep away. Far.Away. And Motorola Support, please get your act together.

Moto 360 Sport Debacle

Note: Any text in quotes above are a direct copy/paste of the interaction. Luckily I have much of this in writing or on voice mails, but some did take place on the phone. Happy to provide supporting details if so desired. I have reached out and it appears I am not alone in this kind of experience with Motorola Support.

UPDATE: They are now mysteriously able to see that the RMA “went through, and I can see the device arrived to your home”. The rep also added: “I will ask you to send us the device since with the Advance Exchange submitted a hold has been put on the card you used, if you do not send us back the device the hold will become a charge.” which is in direct opposition to the statement I have in writing from the 17th that confirms there are no holds on my card. Let it sink in for a minute that the system they use is so bad, they don’t actually know if they are billing you or not.

UPDATE (August 19th): Someone from the “Executive Customer Relations” team (which based on the email address appears to be part of the office of the CEO) reached out to me. They included a tracking label to overnight the phone to them and said they would overnight me the correct watch as soon as they received the phone. So, progress. I had the phone to FedEx within an hour, and noted it would be a show of good faith for them to overnight me the watch now, since the issue has been going on for roughly three weeks already and we’re getting to the weekend. They responded, and insinuated they could do so but would not as a result of something I said in this post (the comment about the phone being a gift). My response: “Considering the show of good faith I made by having the package at Fed Ex within an hour of receiving your email AND the fact that we are on week three of this absolutely terrible customer experience AND the fact that I provided proof of shipping AND the fact that we’re on a weekend boundary that will cause another delay, I’m hoping you decide to ship something out ASAP”. I also included a photo of the Fed Ex receipt. They never responded, which is pretty disappointing and seems for lack of a better word…vindictive. I guess I’ll now be running at LinuxCon with no Moto 360 Sport. I also made it clear that this is no longer about me getting a working device. The readers, listeners and conference-goers that I have recommended Motorola products to or whom have seen me wear the device on stage and have made a purchase as a result deserve to know the systemic issues I encountered are being addressed. They completely ignored that part of my email but I will work to get it addressed. Stay tuned for further updates.

UPDATE (August 20th): After posting the previous update I also sent a very frank email to the Executive Customer Relations team. They had received the phone at this point and responded saying they decided to send me a new Moto 360 Sport via Saturday deliver, which I just received. Hopefully this marks the end of my particular issue. On to the broader issue, they said “We have completed a deep dive on your case and sent off coaching and feedback to ensure this does not occur in the future”, which is encouraging. I’ve responded noting that the technical system they use should really be evaluated, as the number of cascading failures just should not be possible (remember: the system allowed for the creation of an RMA when one doesn’t exist, showed one card as declined when my credit card company confirms it was not, put two holds for different amounts on a second card but then canceled the RMA while somehow still sending out a device, which then ended up being the incorrect device.  The billing issues are especially worrisome and it looks doubly bad when a tech company has this many technical failures). It is my hope based on their response that they will look into the failures and hopefully other people will not have to go through an experience similar to the one I have.

Withings Aura Smart Sleep System Review

In the most recent episode of Bad Voltage, I reviewed the Withings Aura Smart Sleep System. Tune in to listen to the ensuing discussion and the rest of the show.

Long time listeners will recall I reviewed the Withings WS-50 Smart Body Analyzer a couple years ago. As I mentioned in that review, I’m someone who makes a concerted effort to stay relatively healthy. Part of that means exercising regularly and being cognizant of my eating habits, but as an Open Source tech guy, I’m someone who prefers to make empirical decisions. I like data. I like being able to spot trends and from there see if I can find causation. A large part of staying healthy is getting enough sleep, any studies have shown that many people simply don’t get enough. While I was interested in getting data about my sleep, having to wear a device to bed every night or remember to activate a device regularly is anathema to me. Enter the Withings Aura Smart Sleep System, which aims to track your sleep without any manual interaction.61Ngbyn-QTL._SY400_

The Aura consists of two pieces: A plastic bedside device that serves as a control panel, speaker, digital clock, USB port and LED light that works in conjunction with the sleep programs and alarms, and a flat cloth sleep sensor that you place under your mattress. Once configured the device will automatically track and measure Temperature, Luminosity, Sound levels, Heart rate and amount of sleep. Sleep is broken up into light, deep and REM cycles which are then combined with time awake to give you a number for total time in bed, including how long it took you to initially fall asleep. The data is sent to the same Android or iOS Health Mate app as the WS-50, which syncs the data with the online portal. In addition to tracking, you can set a sleep program which combines soothing sound with a sunset light spectrum (which is various shades of red, from lighter to darker), use the nap program which allows you to sleep for a specific duration of time or set a traditional alarm. One nice alarm feature is that you tell the app not only what time you need to get up, but how many minutes before that you are willing to get up. It uses this data along with the sleep tracking to slowly start waking you using sunrise spectrum light (various shades of blue, from dark to light) and soft sounds once it detects you’re in the optimum part of your sleep cycle during that time window. You can even be woken up to a custom Spotify playlist.

Once you’ve had the device for a while, the app and online dashboard start to build activity and sleep patterns. While it’s easy to see how much sleep you’re getting and what kind of sleep you’re getting, there’s unfortunately no attempt to explain why you may not be getting enough sleep or what actions you could take to try to improve your sleep. I should note that I initially had some issues with connectivity and the alarm function, but recent firmware updates seem to have addressed those. Withings has consistently improved the app and online control panel, and has added additional functionality (most recently Nest integration). The device retails for $299 with one sleep sensor or $369 with two. Roughly a week before this review, Withings was acquired by Nokia, so it’s too soon to know what long term impact that will have.

So, what’s the Bad Voltage verdict? The Withings Aura Smart Sleep System gives you a lot of data and in my experience has been surprisingly accurate. The passive nature of the device appeals to me and ensures you have consistent and reliable data. While it would be nice if there was an attempt to further analyze the data and give customized actionable advice, you have the raw data to do this yourself. Overall the device works well, and if the concept appeals to you it’s something I’d recommend.

–jeremy

Moto 360 Generation 2 Smartwatch Review

In the next episode of Bad Voltage, I’ll be reviewing the Motorola Moto 360 Generation 2 (2015 edition). Tune in tomorrow to listen to the ensuing discussion and the rest of the show. In the interim, here’s the review:

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While I’m both a watch aficionado and a huge tech enthusiast, I’ve not traditionally been super impressed with smart watches. Sure, I backed the original pebble but the first few generations of devices in this category just didn’t impress me. Sub par displays, laggy unintuitive interfaces and terrible battery life weren’t the only issues. They just weren’t aesthetically pleasing. Shortly before our trip to Germany for Bad Voltage Live, friend of the show Tarus Balog mentioned the translation feature on his original Moto 360. I was intrigued as I unfortunately don’t speak much German. After taking a look at the Moto 360 generation two (or 2015 version as it’s sometimes called), I saw a watch that actually appealed to me. Evidently it’s not just me, as I’ve gotten several comments on how nice the device looks from random enthusiasts since my purchase.

The first thing you’ll notice when you start to build your watch using Moto Maker is that there are quite a few options. You can choose from 42mm or 46mm faces designed in men’s style, or a 42mm women’s style. There are multiple bezel choices, the case is available in a variety of colors based on which style you choose and there are myriad bands in both leather and metal. The price ranges from $299 – $449, depending on which options you choose, but given the large number of variables there should be something for everyone.

Moving on to specs, all models have gorilla glass, wireless charging, an ambient light sensor, heart rate sensor, Gyroscope, Accelerometer, are IP67* dust and water resistant, and have both wifi and bluetooth connectivity. The smaller style has a 300mAH battery that should last a little over one day, while the 46mm style has a 400mAH battery that should last almost two. In my experience, that estimate is pretty accurate but does depend on whether you utilize ambient mode. The wireless charger is a little stand that turns the watch into a small clock while charging, which is a nice touch. The watch does work with both Android and iOS. It appears Motorola plans to be a good Android citizen on the upgrade side, as I literally got the Marshmallow upgrade notification as I was writing this review.

Moto360

With specs out of the way, let’s move on to using and wearing the watch. I’ve already mentioned that I like the look of the watch, but I should mention that it’s also well built and comfortable to wear. Getting notifications on your wrist does come in handy at times, and not having to reach for your phone to check your calendar is nice. You can dictate text messages using the watch, but I just don’t *ever* see myself doing that. To be fair, I don’t do that with my phone either. The Google Now card implementation is both intuitive and useful. The translation feature that led me to first look into buying the watch works as advertised and came in handy on multiple occasions. The Google Fit and Moto Body functionality is also there for those who are interested, although keep in mind Motorola has a dedicated Sport Watch.  Overall I like the device more than I anticipated, but there are some downsides. I’ve only been using the marshmallow version of Wear for 15 minutes or so, but overall Wear is not quite where it needs to be. It is getting closer though, and that isn’t specific to the Moto 360. While battery life on the device is acceptable, I think for a watch to get mainstream adoption it will need to be able to last for “a weekend” and so far I’m not aware of a non e-ink one that does. I should note that while the original 360 was the first round smartwatch, both it and the generation 2 model have a small notch out of the bottom part of the display that has derisively been nicknamed the flat tire. While it doesn’t bother me much, it seems to drive some people absolutely bonkers. Competing round watches from LG, Samsung, Huawei and others do not have the tire.

So, what’s the Bad Voltage verdict? The Moto 360 generation 2 is a sleek, well built, reasonably priced device with enough customization options to appeal to traditional watch enthusiasts. If you’ve been holding out on getting a smartwatch, it may well be time to take another look.

–jeremy

Note, I’ve heard good things about the latest Huawei Watch but don’t currently have one. If I get one, I’ll certainly review it here as well as post a comparison to the Moto 360 2. If you think there’s another watch I should be looking at, let me know.

  • IP67 – Withstands immersion in up to 3 feet of fresh water for up to 30 minutes. Not designed to work while submerged underwater. Do not use while swimming, or subject it to pressurized streams of water. Avoid exposure of leather band to water. Not dust proof.

 

Wi-fi Security Camera Review: Netgear Arlo vs D-Link Guardian DCS-2630L

In the next episode of Bad Voltage, I’ll be reviewing the Netgear Arlo and D-Link Guardian DCS-2630L wi-fi security cameras. Tune in tomorrow to listen to the ensuing discussion and the rest of the show. In the interim, here’s the review:

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Netgear Arlo vs D-Link Guardian DCS-2630L

Those of you who regularly listen to the show know that I’ve been creating an increasingly smarter home. Continuing that trend, in this show I’ll review not one, but two wi-fi security camera offerings: the Arlo by Netgear and the Guardian DCS-2630L by D-link. To be fair, it’s difficult to directly compare these cameras as they are aimed at slightly different use cases. The Guardian requires a power outlet, and comes equipped with 180 degree field of view, 1080p HD video quality, two way audio and local recording but no cloud recording options. The Arlo is completely wireless, and comes with 110 degree field of view, 720p HD video quality, no audio and no local recording but does include cloud recording options. Both cameras have motion detection, apps for Android and iOS, live viewing, and event notifications. The Arlo kit starts at $200, with each additional camera adding $150 while the Guardian will set you back $200. For the Arlo, the free, 7-day recording option lets you sync up to five cameras. There’s also a 30-day option that costs $10 a month and lets you sync up to 10 cameras, as well as a 60-day option that costs $15 a month and lets you sync up to 15 cameras.

Note: The soon to be released Arlo Q is much more comparable to the D-Link Guardian, with the caveat that you’re still making a local vs. cloud choice. I’ll try to update this review in the future once that product actually ships.

Both devices are relatively easy to setup. For the Arlo you insert the four included CR123 batteries, plug in the seemingly unnecessarily large hub, download the phone app, create an account and sync your camera. The camera must be within 200-300 feet of the hub. The D-link is a similar process of plug in the camera, download the phone app, create an account, scan an included QR code and sync your camera. The Arlo comes with dome shaped magnetic mounts to allow maximum flexibility, while the Guardian has a solid more traditional swivel base.

With the devices both installed, lets move on to actually using them. The Arlo app home screen and website display a nice overview of all your connected cameras. From either you can view multiple cameras, control all available settings, select different motion detection modes, set schedules and view a library of past recordings. The app is intuitive and responsive, and video loads smoothly in both the app and browser. The D-link app defaults to a simple list of available cameras. The free app is fairly basic, but a more full featured app can be purchased for $.99 (although do note the paid app hasn’t been updated in over a year). The app is not quite as intuitive as the Arlo app and was continually laggy for me. While the video on the D-Link is of a higher quality, it sometimes takes a while to load. Incredulously the website doesn’t work at all in any browser in Linux. It’s not just that you can’t watch videos, nothing at all works. You can’t update settings, access a list of your cameras. Nothing. It requires a non-standard plugin for OS X but I wasn’t able to get that to work correctly. It’s almost 2016 and there is absolutely no reason for this. With HTML5 and other web technologies available I consider this a major strike against the Guardian. Also odd is that much of the advanced functionality of the device is hidden in a little mentioned local http server, which means you must find the IP assigned to your camera and manually type it into a browser. Luckily, this does work in Linux. While D-Link doesn’t offer any public cloud recording options, they do offer multiple Network Video Recorder options that allow you to create a DIY local cloud setup, although those come at an additional cost.

The video quality on the weatherproof Arlo is high and the field of view is well suited for most outdoor applications, which is one segment the camera is clearly aimed at. The Arlo in front of my house covers my entire yard and most of each house on either side of me. Battery life is very dependent on how often your placement and motion settings will trigger recording and notification. Overly noisy setups may only get 2-3 months, while well thought out setups should get around 6 months. The addition of a solar charging option would be a welcome addition here. The video quality on the Guardian is very high and the field of view is also the highest I’ve seen from any consumer security camera (and they’ve managed to keep the fisheye minimal). It’s enough to easily capture the entirety of even large indoor spaces. The night vision on both devices is more than adequate, with the Arlo seeing slightly farther and the Guardian being slightly brighter.

While both products are more polished and have a higher build quality than competing products from Foscam, neither support If This Then That (IFTTT) or integrate with any third-party devices, which may be disappointing depending on your integration needs. One concern I have with the Arlo is that the operating temperature low end is 14F. We’ll see how the device operates outside during a New York winter.

So, what’s the bad voltage verdict? The Arlo is a solid system and if you’re looking for a completely wireless setup it’s one of your only options. While the hub is giant, the battery life is surprisingly good for the feature set included and the free cloud tier will be sufficient for most people. It’s a device I’d be comfortable recommending. The Guardian is definitely better than similar devices from Foscam and the like, but at a higher price point to match. If you’re looking for a camera with 100% local storage it’s a high quality device that will serve you well. That said, the D-Link is a little difficult to use and they seriously have to get their act together when it comes to browser support. There’s just no excuse these days.

arlo-lightguardian-light arlo-dark guardian-dark

–jeremy

Nest Protect Generation 2 Review

In the next episode of Bad Voltage, I’ll be reviewing the Nest Protect Generation 2, a network capable Smoke + Carbon Monoxide detector. Tune in tomorrow to listen to the ensuing discussion and the rest of the show. In the interim, here’s the review:

Nest Protect Generation 2

As someone who travels quite a bit, a smoke detector that can notify me when I’m away is a compelling device. As a technology guy who has a fair amount of home automation equipment, a smoke detector that can integrate into my increasingly smarter home seems like a natural choice. So, why am I just now reviewing the Nest Protect? Well, the first generation Protect had quite a reputation for false alarms and a “wave” feature that was so buggy it resulted in a recall. And while I’m an early adopter who suffers through quite a few wonky first generation devices, when it comes to something as important as a safety device… I decided to play it safe. But when Nest recently released the Nest Protect generation 2, I decided to take the proverbial plunge.

While the generation 2 device is noticeably sleeker than its predecessor, its what’s inside that prompted my purchase. It uses an advanced smoke sensor, called a Split-Spectrum Sensor, to detect a wide range of smoke events, including both slow smoldering fires and fast flaming fires. That sensor is shielded against outside light and encased in a stainless steel screen, which has a hexagonal pattern designed to let smoke in and keep bugs, dust and fibers out. This should vastly decrease the likelihood of a false alarm. The device also has built-in sensors to detect carbon monoxide, heat, humidity, occupancy and ambient light, as well as (slightly disconcertingly for some I’m sure) a microphone. On the outside is a central button, surrounded by a colorful LED ring, which alerts you to the current status of the device: Blue during setup/testing, green for good, yellow for warning and red for an emergency.

Setting up the device was extremely straight forward. Download the Nest app (available for Android and iOS), select “Add product” and follow a couple simple prompts. Total install time was less than 5 minutes per device, although I installed the battery powered version. If you opt for the hardwired version it will take a little longer. You can enable a couple optional features during install, including Pathlight (which will turn the LED ring into a night-light if you walk by in the dark) and Nightly Promise (which will result in the device glowing green briefly at night, to let you know that it’s fully operational). Installation concludes with a final safety test.

As part of the install, you select where the device is located in your home. One thing that separates the Protect from a more traditional device is the Heads Up feature. If smoke or CO levels are elevated but not at emergency levels, the device will loudly say: “Heads up: there’s smoke in the hallway”. Once the levels pass a certain threshold, the full alarm is sounded and you will start to receive mobile notifications. Unlike the first gen device, you can silence the alarm from the app, although due to regulations there are some parameters around when you can do so. As a networked device, when one Protect senses trouble, all devices will alarm. That means if my Protect on the 3rd floor detects smoke, the device on the 1st floor will also alarm, making it much more likely someone will hear it. The device also regularly tests the battery and will inform you if it’s low, hopefully making the just-not-often-enough intermittent chirp of a dying smoke detector a thing of the past.

There are some additional features that more advanced users may take advantage of as well. The Protect can integrate with other Nest devices, so for example you can have a Dropcam send you a picture if the Protect alarms. There is also full IfThisThenThat support with quite a few existing recipes available. This enables scenarios such as “Text a neighbor when your Nest Protect detects a smoke alarm emergency” or “Add a reminder to my calendar when Nest Protect batteries are low”.

So, what’s the Bad Voltage verdict? At $99, the Protect is significantly more expensive than a traditional smoke detector. While I’ve only had the second generation devices for a little over a month, I haven’t gotten a single false alarm yet. If that remains the case, the additional features, notifications and integrations are compelling enough to justify the cost for me. Because I like redundancy, I also installed a more traditional (although Z Wave enabled) device on my second floor.

–jeremy

HTC One M9 Review

Here’s my review from the latest episode of Bad Voltage. Note that a slightly longer version, with some pictures and a quote is available at LQ.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Android. As a result, I use and test a lot of different Android phones. I plan to start actually reviewing more of them. First up is the HTC One M9. You may remember that I mentioned the One M8 when I reviewed the Nexus 5. HTC’s 2015 top-of-the-line phone builds on the same sleek design as last year’s M8, sticking to the luxurious all-metal case and 5 inch Super LCD3 1080p HD screen while incorporating some key spec improvements, such as an upgraded Octo-core Snapdragon 810 processor, a 20 mega-pixel camera and a 2840 mAh battery. While it’s a bit heavy at 157g, especially compared to the iPhone 6 or Galaxy S6, I prefer the weight and balance HTC has created. At 5.69 by 2.74 inches, it’s about as large as I prefer a phone to be (For comparison, the iPhone 6+ is 6.22 x 3.06 and the Nexus 6 is 6.27 x 3.27) The M9 is one of the few flagship phones to still feature expandable storage via SD card, and it offers a unique Uh Oh one-year replacement program in the US. While the phone ships with Android 5.0, I’d expect a 5.1 roll-out in the next month or so. The device is priced at $649 unlocked in the US, with on-contract pricing starting at $199.

With the specs out of the way, let’s get to what’s important; how does the One M9 perform on a day to day basis. Let’s start with the first thing you’ll notice if you’re coming from a non-HTC phone, which is Sense 7. Sense is the UI skin that HTC puts on their Android phones. If you’re a Samsung user, it’s the equivalent to TouchWiz. My last couple full time phones have been from the Nexus family and I tend to prefer the stock Android experience. That said, Sense 7 is actually quite nice. It’s clean, performs well and has a few little touches that would be welcome additions to Android proper. An interesting new feature is a home-screen widget which dynamically changes which apps are displayed within it, depending on your location. (Work, Home, on the go). The theme generator is also pretty cool: you can take a snap of anything and the phone will analyze the image and create a full palette of colors to use with icons and app headers. Even the font and icon shapes will be altered to match the overall feel of the new theme.

While the screen doesn’t have the density or resolution of the Galaxy S6 or LG G4, its 441 pixel per inch screen looks better than the similarly spec’d Nexus 5. HTC has once again eschewed playing the number game here and opted for a non-2k experience which offers almost no discernible benefits to me at this screen size while eating up more of your limited battery. While the speakers haven’t changed much since the previous version, they are still far and away the best available in any phone. The camera is one area that has had a big change since the previous model. The 4-mega-pixel Ultrapixel sensor has been moved to the front of the phone and the aforementioned 20-mega-pixel camera now sits on the back. The phone produced quality photos in my tests, although low light scenarios are a bit of a weak point. I did notice some shutter lag at times, but there are similar lags on my Nexus 5.

While the battery is slightly more capacious than the previous One and HTC estimates you should get a full day of use out of the phone, I’d say that’s ambitious. To be fair, most Android flagship phones seem to be roughly equivalent in this regard and it’s really an area manufacturers need to focus on in my opinion. One other thing that’s changed, and this time not for the better in my opinion, is the power button transferring to the right-hand side of the phone. This may be a more natural place for it to be positioned and some people seem to prefer it, but the fact that it’s the same size and shape as the volume buttons above it results in me inadvertently hitting the incorrect button at times. It’s placement has also resulted in me accidentally powering the screen off. Perhaps I hold my phone in a different position than most people, but I suspect it’s something I’d get used to over time.

One frustrating thing about the phone is that, while it supports QuickCharge 2.0, which can charge the phone 60% in just 30 minutes, the charger that ships with the phone is not QuickCharge enabled. That seems ludicrous for a phone in this price range. It should also be noted that during serious use, the phone tends to get a bit hotter than other phones I’ve used.

So, what’s the Bad Voltage verdict? The One M8 was one of my favorite phones last year. The slick design of the M9 is still amazing, but I will say the competition has upped its game considerably. While the M8 had the plasticky S5 and the small iPhone to contend with, the M9 has to compete with the also well designed S6 and the newer updated iPhone 6. A flagship phone has to score well in a lot of areas for me to consider it a phone worth recommending. It has to have solid performance, gorgeous design, a camera that will capture memories accurately and expediently, last through a full day of use and be reasonably priced. That’s a tall order to be sure. I think the HTC One M9 makes the short list (along with the Samsung Galaxy S6 and if you don’t mind a giant phone, the Nexus 6 or LG G4). If you’re looking for an Android phone I’d recommend you look at those phones and pick the one that suits your personal tastes best. As the Nexus 6 is too big for me, my personal choice would currently be the One M9. As a testament to just how good the phone is, I lent my review device to an iPhone user so they could get a feel for Android. They’re no longer an iPhone user.

–jeremy