A Bumpy Road to the Quantified Self

Fitbit tracking data So for the holidays this year, I received a Fitbit Force as a gift (thanks boss!).

I’d been considering getting an activity tracker for some time now – the main thing stopping me was that all the wrist-based trackers didn’t particularly fit my personal style. Still, once I actually had a Fitbit, I figured I’d give it a try.

A few weeks in, there’s a lot to like about the Fitbit Force. It’s surprisingly accurate in differentiating arm movement from actual motion. Cordless synching with the Android app makes keeping the data updated a breeze. And the most powerful tool by far has been combining my food intake tracking with activity tracking. Being able to see at a glance how many calories a day I have left in my ‘budget’ makes me a lot more mindful about my food choices.

Plus, like many people, I’ve struggled for years with finding the time and motivation to exercise. Now I can see exactly what kind of difference exercising versus not exercising has on my calorie intake. I love it. I’ve finally found something that motivates me to get my butt off the couch, and that’s great.

So what’s the problem? Getting the damn thing onto my wrist each day – there is no way it should be this hard to use! The Force has the worst clasp I’ve ever used, bar none. The fact that Fitbit needs to put a video on their website showing how to use the clasp suggests they were aware that it was an issue but chose to put it out anyway. Not their best decision.

Even after watching the video & a couple of weeks’ practice, getting the two prongs to click in every morning is a frustrating struggle that usually involves multiple tries and some curse words. I don’t know what Fitbit was thinking or who they tested it on, but as much as I like the data I’m getting from the Force, it’s bad enough to make me seriously think about using a different device.

New Phone! The HTC One

So HTC’s newest flagship phone – the HTC One – was released this week and lucky me, HTC sent me one as part of their launch. I’m a longtime fan of HTC phones, having used the Nexus One, the Inspire HD, and more recently the One X, but the HTC One is a big leap forward from all of these.

Short version: This phone is excellent. It looks, feels, and performs beautifully, and I just love using it. For more info, read on.

Getting Started

Out of the box, the HTC one feels great in your hand. It’s metal, not plastic, which means it’s a bit heavier than my One X, but not too heavy. The screen is beautiful. And the audio volume and quality are a big step forward.

HTC has a nice setup process that allows you to import data from a wide range of accounts. One new thing I found was the HTC Transfer Tool. As you might expect from the name, this transfers some data and settings (although mostly system stuff), including messages, contacts, music, and photos. After downloading the app onto my old phone and pairing the devices, it worked like a charm. Being able to transfer data across two phones without cables or using a computer was very nice. I just wish it included all my apps, not just HTC’s stuff.

HTC One Welcome screen
HTC One Welcome screen

For the rest, Google’s setup added some more apps and settings onto the one, and then finally I went into the Play Store and re-downloads the rest. it would be nice if setting up a new phone was a bit more seamless, but you only have to do it once per phone, so this isn’t that big of a deal. Plus it gives me the chance to re-evaluate what apps make the cut to go onto the new phone.

Using the HTC One

With the phone set up and my apps reinstalled, I could start to give the phone a real workout. Here are my impressions after three days with the HTC One.

There’s a few little things I’d like to see improved, but even so this is easily the best Android phone out there. Sorry, Samsung fans. Given Sense UI over TouchWiz I’ll take Sense any day.

And speaking of UIs, Sense 5 has gotten a nice overhaul. Lots of little tweaks and additions, a new icon set and font — overall a very clean and modern feel to it. I love the upgrades to the Gallery, bringing together the photos that I have in various places, like Flickr, Dropbox, Instagram, plus several others. The email client works great with both my home and office email accounts and looks nicer than the last version.

There’s been a lot of talk about the “UltraPixel” camera and how HTC is focusing not on pixel count but overall photo quality. I come at this from the perspective of what they call a “prosumer” photographer and as such I have a pretty high quality standard. The HTC One is as good as a camera in a smartphone is going to get, but it’s not going to be replacing my Nikon D5100 anytime soon. Here’s a sample indoor shot:

random cat photo shot with an HTC One
random cat photo

The audio quality, as I said earlier, is really excellent, as is the screen. Colors just pop and animations flow smoothly. Battery life is about the same as most phones in its class – decent but not spectacular (about 8 hours of moderate use). I turned down the default brightness to help with battery life but I haven’t made use of the built in “power saver” features.

Although overall I’m very happy with the HTC One, there are a couple of things I’m not completely thrilled with. Primarily, the new home screen. I’d like to be able to do more customization that it allows. The clock and weather widget, for example, can’t be customized at all. And the new BlinkFeed is frustrating, because while I really like the look, I’d like it a lot more if it would display my calendar first all the time and then my social updates and news. My phone is a work tool as well as a social one and access to my calendar is pretty critical. Not having that in my home screen is a big minus.

This is mitigated somewhat by being able to add my calendar notifications into the lock screen. I can live with that.

New BlinkFeed home screen. Click through for a full screen shot.
New BlinkFeed home screen. Click through for a full screen shot.

Also, the whole HTC Zoe Share thing. I still don’t quite get what the heck it is, and I don’t see a need for it. I have plenty of other ways to share my photos and videos already.

None of that is a show stopper, although I do hope HTC continues to work on BlinkFeed to give us more options there.

Anyway, those are my impressions after a few days of use. I look forward to a long and happy life with my HTC One, and would definitely recommend it if you’re in the market for a new phone. Even you iPhone users should take a look.

For an in-depth review, you might want to check out Android Central’s complete rundown.

One last note: I’m pairing my HTC One with a red Cruzerlite “Bugdroid” case. It’s a simple TPU case that doesn’t add a lot of extra bulk but offers some basic protection. Plus it’s cute.

SxSW is Disneyworld

SxSW Wall
Street scene, Austin, SxSW 2013

Over the course of an exceedingly hectic and travel-filled March (four cities in three weeks!), I finally got the chance to attend SxSW Interactive. I was there for work (Adobe did a 2 day event as part of the festivities) and didn’t get the full SxSW experience.

Despite spending most of my time there snapping photos in a hotel ballroom, I did manage to get out a little, and I came away convinced of two things:

1) I want to go back next year, and
2) SxSW is what you make of it

There’s plenty of articles out there taking about SxSW from every possible angle. Depending on who you listen to, SxSW is anything from a 4-day partyfest to the most important event of the year for anyone touching the interactive world.

But ultimately – SxSW is a lot like Disneyworld. You can focus on a lot of different things when you do a trip to Disney. So much so that two families might have completely different experiences even though they’re both in Orlando at the same time. And you might come away hating the trip, or loving it, or wanting to do everything different the next time, or not wanting to change a thing.

So too with SxSW. And count me as a fan.

My First Week on Ingress

Ingress has become something of an obsession to the folks over on Google+ in the last month. Like many, I waited more than a little impatiently to see if I’d be one of the lucky ones to get an invite to the currently closed beta of Ingress.

And a few weeks later, I did. Lucky me! Now I’d finally be able to see what all the buzz was about.

The initial experience of Ingress is slick and well thought out. You run through a set of tutorials that show you what to do, and you choose whether to become one of the Enlightened or join the Resistance. Easy enough.

Then you’re out in the world, with your smartphone and the Ingress app, getting engaged in the battle. That’s where I ran into trouble. I found a number of portals quite easily – there are four within a block of my home, and two more by my office. The only problem is, the battle has been advancing while I was waiting to play. As a lowly Level 1 newbie up against enemy portals several levels higher than me, I haven’t much of a chance to successfully attack them, and successful attacks are necessary to advance in level.

That creates a frustrating Catch-22, and I don’t know whether I’ll keep trying or not.

I’m disappointed, because I love the idea of Ingress. A game that requires real-world engagement instead of sitting home in front of your computer is a great idea. The mythology around Ingress is a lot of fun. But the barrier to entry, especially for places like the Bay Area with a lot of geeks, is a real issue.

In Search Of: The Perfect Tablet

TL; DR: There’s no such thing as the perfect tablet. My MacBook Pro rules.

I spent a good chunk of the weekend giving the Xoom a workout. I truly wanted to like it but I have to say I’m less than enthused.

There’s things I like about it, to be sure. Being able to turn the device on, log in, and poof! Google starts synching all my stuff. That is great. Or it would be if it actually downloaded all my apps and bookmarks. Most of them got re-synched but not all.

The Xoom is fast and app switching is really smooth and easy. Want to jump from a link in Tweetdeck (which runs beautifully) or even email to a web browser? Click, you’re there. The web page loads fast, and then getting back into Tweetdeck is one tap of the Back button. It’s nice and I find it an intuitive workflow. On the iPad I have never liked having to hit the Home button and re-launch an app to jump back and forth.

Oh, and the battery life is excellent. After 8 hours of near continuous use with the wifi turned on, I still had 15% battery left. More than enough time for a cross-country flight, and that’s a key use-case for me.

Then there are the things that are annoying. The keyboard, despite being on a bigger screen, isn’t easy to type on, because some of the elements from the layout have been switched from where they are in Froyo devices. This is annoying and slows down my typing speed. Some apps and widgets are great, others, not so much. Scaled-up Android apps generally don’t look as bad as scaled-up iPhone-to-iPad apps do, mostly because they’re nowhere near as badly pixelated. It’s true that few apps are designed to take advantage of the expanded real estate of available on a tablet but my apps worked well

I have issues with the iPad as well, though. I hate the browser, and not just because it doesn’t run Flash. I can’t import bookmarks from Chrome into it, for one thing. It’s also slow, even when on wifi. I miss my Android widgets. I wish I could customize the screen more. And several of my favorite tools look like crap on the iPad – notably Tripit, Foursquare, Facebook. And sadly my much-loved Tweetdeck is buggy as hell on the iPad.

On the other hand, the iPad wins for email hands-down. I find the keyboard easy to use and the unified inbox is very nice.

Either the iPad or the Xoom will do just fine for the two main things I’ll be using them for – airplanes and some lightweight email management in the bedroom. They’re both decent devices but neither has my heart. That still belongs to my trusty MacBook Pro.

18 months from now who knows? Maybe I’ll be typing my blog post on a tablet instead of my laptop and laughing at how I ever thought a laptop was better. So far, color me unconvinced.

Google TV: First Impressions

So last night, we added a Google TV device to the household. It’s a Logitech Revue, one of the three current gTV options.

Setting the Revue up is pretty simple. Power cable. HDMI in from your DVR or cable box, HDMI out to the TV (one HDMI cable is included). Wifi built in (or you can jack in an ethernet cable if you wish). The on-screen setup went smoothly, although the Revue did hang after downloading an update. needing a quick power off / power on to get things going again. You’re asked for a Google account, which isn’t a big deal but does create an issue for households with more than one Google user — whose account do you add to the TV? Or should you create a special gTV account to be shared by all? The hardest part was setting up the connection to your TV and DVR or other set-top box — you’ll be asked for the specific model numbers for each.

At any rate, eventually you’re all done and your new Google TV is ready to roll.

So what did I do first? Check out YouTube. gTV has something called “YouTube Leanback” built in as a custom channel – mostly music videos and content from key partners. You can also use the built-in Chrome browser to log into your own YouTube account and use YouTube just like you would on your computer (my choice). The Logitech keyboard / touchpad works well for navigating around the screen and I was quickly able to start watching my saved favorites in full-screen mode on our 46″ TV.

Performance was a non-issue. Of course, watching older, non-HD video on a big HDTV isn’t exactly a challenge, so next I gave Netflix a shot. After activating the gTV with my Netflix account, my queue came up on screen and I was able to dive right in. Performance was no different than what I get when watching Netflix streamed via my TiVo. [Side note, this is now device #3 in the living room capable of streaming Netflix to our TV. I really need to get streaming Netflix into other rooms of the house now.]

So far, so good. I don’t like basketball so I gave the NBA app a pass, nor do I have a lot of photos in Picasa so I couldn’t do much with that. There are some other apps (HBO GO, CNBC, Twitter, etc) I have yet to check out as well.

I’d like to see more apps on the gTV of course – for example, as a Last.fm subscriber it’s a little frustrating to see Napster and Pandora there but not my preferred streaming music provider. It will be a few months before there’s a healthy pipeline of new gTV apps, so I’ll have to be patient.

At this point, my main concern is — who is the target market for the Google TV? As The Spouse pointed out, people like us already generally watch TV with a laptop parked in our laps. We can search, Tweet, etc in the living room already. For that kind of user, the use-case would be in rooms of the house where you have a TV set up but don’t necessarily want to haul a laptop – like the kitchen or bedroom. Originally I was going to set the gTV up in the bedroom, in fact, but we have an older cable box and DVR in there and as such don’t have the necessary HD connectivity.

For slightly less geeky families, having a Google TV in the living room could be a big win — if they nail the user experience. It’s good, especially for a 1.0 version, but could be a little more friendly.

With US midterm elections this Tuesday, I’m really interested to see how well the web browser / TV picture in picture setup will play out – having Twitter and MSNBC on the same screen could be a lot of fun.