Thanks to Amazon’s new Influencer Program, I can now put all my gadget and photography recommendations in one place. This is the most complete guide that I’ve ever had simply because Amazon carries so many products. Does this mean that I don’t shop or recommend places like B&H Photo anymore? Absolutely not. I love B&H and quite honestly I will continue to buy my big ticket photography gear and electronics from there. However, there are so many things that I recommend that B&H just doesn’t carry. That’s why I’m stoked to have the opportunity to have my own spot on Amazon. There isn’t anything here that I haven’t used personally. The only possible exception would be a newer version of a gadget or piece of tech that I use that is no longer available.
They are nicely organized by category. You can see my recommendations here.
I had been using a standard 2 Port USB Charger in my car so that I could keep my iPhone charged and the have a cable there for use by the passenger in the front seat. That worked great until this past weekend…
I’ve been into gadgets and technology since I was a kid. Yet believe it or not CES 2016 was my 1st CES (Consumer Electronics Show). It was always something that I said, “I’m going to the next one!” and then it would always sneak up on me and be too late to plan a trip. Well this time I made plans early and took off work to go. I expected a gigantic tradeshow with lots of cool gear to look at, but what I actually got was a little different…
If you’re an Amazon Prime member then you were probably given the chance to order an Amazon Echo early and for the introductory price of $99. I took them up on their offer and ordered the Amazon Echo a few months back. I wasn’t really sure what it would do for me or if it would be worth it. I received my unit and went through the setup process using the iPhone app. It was pretty easy to setup, connect it to my WiFi network and configure it with my Pandora Radio and iHeart Radio accounts. From that point on I could just say “Alexa” and ask it pretty much anything that I wanted to know. Rather than write about it I decided to give you a video demonstration:
I gotta say that I’m pretty impressed with it and especially the accuracy of the voice recognition. I use it for music the most. It’s cool being able to say play songs by _______ or have it play any of my Pandora Radio stations. I don’t have a daily commute, but if I did it would be great to say “what’s the traffic look like?” and have it give me current traffic conditions from my home to my work place. To answer the question, YES the Amazon Echo was absolutely worth the $99 special price. Now the question is is it worth the current price of $179.99? I would say mostly yes for the music aspect of it and the home automation potential. It’s also cool that new capabilities are being added to it on a regular basis. It works as advertised. One way to justify it is to keep in mind that there are bluetooth speakers out there that cost just as much and do a whole lot less. The sound coming from Amazon Echo is as good if not better than most other “dumb” speakers out there today.
WiFi connected webcams are nothing new. When someone enters this category I quickly look to see if they’re adding anything new or if it’s just a me too product. In most cases there isn’t a whole lot that’s new, but companies do sometimes find a way to improve on an already crowded product category. The Simplicam + Closeli is a standard WiFi connected webcam with a nicer design than most. It has a well thought out base/stand as well as things like a 10 foot “flat” USB cable so that you can more easily hide it in your home. This camera can be monitored from your iPhone, iPad, Android device or web browser.
The setup process is pretty straight forward. Just plug the supplied “short” USB cable into your Simplicam and the other end into your Mac/PC. The software mounts in a volume on your computer that you can run from there. Once you’re in the setup utility you’ll use it to connect the Simplicam to your WiFi network. You’ll also create an account on Closeli.com where you’ll get a year of included cloud recording service. Closeli like others has different plans so that you can go back and review footage from your camera based on motion and sound detection. They also bring “face” detection to the table to distinguish between someone actually entering the room vs. the cat running by. You can get push notifications of any of the aforementioned types of activity. You can also schedule times when notifications need not be received (you’re home) or when the camera should be off. Notifications or not you can see what’s going on in the room on demand by just firing up the Closeli app on your mobile device or logging in with your web browser on your computer. You can export clips or still grabs as need. If you need to talk to the people in the room remotely you have two way audio. Yes there is also night vision.
Here’s a video review of the product.
The Bottom Line
While I haven’t reviewed any of the newer cameras in this category lately, I would say that just looking at the specs alone Simplicam brings at least two things to the table over the competition and that’s face detection (a beta feature, which can also be set up to recognize specific faces and can tell you when an unrecognized face enters the room.) and a lower priced cloud storage/recording service. The 720p 107° view camera is also better than my older cameras.
Nomad has three new smartphone charging accessories that are pretty cool and convenient. The first one is their new NomadKey. This slightly larger than a key sized accessory means that you will always have a micro USB or Lightning cable with you right on your key ring.
Last but not least is their cleverly designed NomadPlus. Your existing iPhone charger goes right inside turning this device into both a charger and 1800mAh battery backup as well. My only disappointment with this one is that it’s only 5V/1A (same as the iPhone charger). I was hoping that as a battery backup it could be 2.1A instead for fast charging and charging iPads at full speed. Otherwise it’s a cool charger/battery backup for your iPhone.
If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m a fan of TiVo DVRs. Not long ago I relocated and it was time to rethink my multi-room viewing experience. In the past I had DVRs in each room. This of course is redundant and costs more than other options. Since I was starting over in a new location I decided that I only needed ONE TiVo DVR and I would explore options for viewing that content in other rooms. In the past I used this setup from Actiontec and while it worked OK, I wanted to see if there was something better? My search led me to the TiVo Mini. TiVo Mini is a smaller box designed to be used on another HDTV in your home. It connects to your HDTV via HDMI and not only streams live TV from your existing TiVo DVR, but it also can stream any recorded content from your TiVo DVR. The big advantage here is that unlike the Actiontec or other solutions, each HDTV can view something different. In other words if someone is watching a recording or live TV in the living room, another viewer can be viewing something totally different in the den, office or bedroom.
It works GREAT! The setup was pretty straight forward and once setup I’m able to enjoy my TiVo in another room as if I was sitting right in front of it. The quality of the stream is as good to my eyes as watching the content on the main TV. There is a small lag that would only be noticed if you had the same live broadcast showing in both rooms at the same time. It does exactly what I needed it to do. It comes with an additional TiVo remote that allows you to control the TiVo mini as well as the TV.
It could be a lot Better
In order to use a TiVo Mini you have to have all the right stuff in place or you simply can’t use it. First off it requires the later generation 4 Tuner TiVo Premiere or Roamio. Luckily I got a TiVo Premiere 4XL on close out and little did I know at the time that going with the 4 tuner model would pay off now. The 4 tuners are necessary so that the main TiVo can still record while the other tuners are being shared with the the TiVo Mini(s) in your home. The next requirement is that it can only work over Ethernet! That’s right it has to be hard wired and there is currently no built-in wireless option. In my opinion in 2014 this is dumb! Most people will not have a wired ethernet connection in bedrooms, family rooms, etc. If my Apple TV can stream HD quality content from the internet via WiFi, there should be no reason that TiVo Mini shouldn’t be able to stream content wirelessly from another room in the same home! There is another option that works via a coax connection if you happen to have the other rooms wired for cable. You can use a set of MoCA adapters to do ethernet over coax or if you have a TiVo Roamio Plus or TiVo Roamio Pro those models have MoCA support built-in. This is probably the best way to go if you can’t run ethernet AND you have the coax cable connections in each room. Luckily I could run “flat” ethernet cables and hide them from room to room. Aside from the connection hurdles, the one and probably biggest problem that people will have with this solution is that TiVo charges a monthly charge to use TiVo Mini. Wow! I can see paying for TiVo service for the DVR, but why on earth is there a need to pay for TiVo service on the TiVo Mini? The TiVo Mini technically is just a bridge to the main TiVo DVR. You can opt to pay a one-time Lifetime Service fee and be done with it, but I can’t see why there is a need to charge for a service for this box at all?
The Bottom Line
Despite the problems, it was the best and most elegant solution to allow me to have my TiVo in 3 rooms and only having one TiVo DVR. The fact that each room can view something different is great and the product has worked perfectly for me so far. Rumor has it that TiVo is working on a newer model of the Mini with wireless capabilities. There’s no formal announcement at this point. TiVo if you’re listening, this product screams to be connected wirelessly and you should ditch the service fees for it even if it means charging a little more for the box itself. Keep in mind that it can’t do anything without a TiVo DVR, so paying a fee for the Mini seems a bit much.
It has been a while since I’ve looked at smart universal remotes. I’ve been happily using my Harmony One for years. However, it was time to setup a new room with HDTV, Apple TV and TiVo Mini. This means either using 2-3 remotes or just ONE! However, I didn’t want to go with another high-end Harmony, yet I wanted something that was still very good. This lead me to check out the Harmony Smart Control. This setup offers the best of both worlds. You get a regular remote control with physical buttons as well as a “hub” that allows you to control everything with your iOS or Android based smartphone or tablet. While I’ve used this hub before, I like the option of having a physical remote for those times when my iPhone is in use or not handy.
How to set it up
The setup was pretty straight forward. You plug in the hub to AC power and then download the Harmony Control app. Since there are no controls on the hub you first have to get it on your WiFi network either via your computer via a USB connection to the Hub or wirelessly to your smartphone via bluetooth. I opted to set it up via my iPhone 5s. The App found the hub and allowed me to key in the password to my WiFi network. Once it was setup on the network the App continued to allow me to set it up. The setup was very typical to Harmony remotes. You simply enter the brand and model names/numbers of the devices you wish to control. Believe it or not, that’s the hard part. Who remembers the model number of their TV? Once I tracked down the info I needed to enter, it was easily able to control each device. Then I setup “Activities” such as “Watch TV” and “Watch Apple TV”. Activities allow you one button options to turn on all the appropriate devices and switch to the appropriate inputs on your TV or receiver. Lastly I added my “Favorite” channels.
How does it work?
Once I set up the Harmony Smart Control, I now have the option of controlling my TV and components via the supplied physical remote OR via my iPhone or iPad using the Harmony Control App. It definitely beats having to have the TiVo remote, TV remote (to properly switch inputs) and the Apple TV remote. Either the App on my iPhone or Harmony remote can control it all. The App is pretty slick too. Not only do you have multiple screens for various controls, you even have a “gesture” screen that allows you to swipe up or down to control TV volume or left or right to change channels. I also like the one touch access to my favorite channels.
The Bottom Line
Logitech has hit the right combination of hardware and software with this combo. You have a physical remote that anyone can use AND the ability to use your mobile device to control it via WiFi from any room. I’m happy with this setup and I’m considering getting another one for another room of gear.
One of the lessons that Hurricane Sandy taught us is that Mother Nature can strike at any time and as a result you could be without power for days. My heart and prayers go out to those affected by the hurricane. To make matters worse another storm is bearing down on the northeast. While generators are great, there could be situations where there is no gas to run them. In those cases you are probably going to want to at least keep your cellphone going at a minimum.
K-TOR Pocket Socket Hand Generator Can Save The Day
Having a portable hand crank generator may be the difference between a charged cellphone battery and a dead one. The concept is simple. Plug in your USB charger in to the standard AC outlet on the Pocket Socket and plug in your phone. Then start cranking. Unfortunately there is no free lunch. If you stop cranking the handle, then you stop generating electricity and therefore you stop charging. You will definitely get a good workout for the time it takes to charge your battery, but I’d be willing to bet there were some folks out there that had no power and therefore a dead phone who would have had no problem cranking this handle for as long as it took to charge up there devices.
The K-TOR Pocket Socket generates 10W 120v DC at 2 cranks per second. How long does it take to charge your phone? The answer is the same amount of time it takes to charge your phone now. If you can get a decent charge in 10 minutes, then you will have to crank for 10 minutes.
You should definitely make one of these part of your emergency preparedness kit!
Some of my readers were asking about or suggesting solar options. A solar charger is a great way to go too as long as you’ve got access to the sun 🙂 The nice part about this particular one is that you can charge it during the daylight and charge your phone each evening even if the sun has gone down.
Programmable thermostats are certainly not a new thing. I’ve had one in my home for several years. They allow you to lower your energy costs by turning the temperature up/down automatically at times throughout the day/night where you’re either not home or wouldn’t notice as much because you’re asleep. You can set these times and days of the week to match your daily routine/schedule. While that’s all well and good, it doesn’t help much in a situation where you don’t have a daily routine. For example, in my studio I’m not there on any kind of regular schedule. Some days I could be there every day for several days in a row and other times I could be gone for weeks at a time. In the past I would simply put the thermostat on the lowest setting before I leave and turn it back up when I arrive. There have also been times where I’ve forgotten to turn it down and the heat was going for no reason for a day or two with no one there. I started looking for a better solution.
The Homeworks Radio Thermostat was the answer
This thermostat is programmable like all the others, but it also allows you to control it via an App on your smartphone or tablet over the internet or locally via WiFi! With the App I can see the current temperature of the studio AND adjust the thermostat remotely at any time. If I forget to adjust it when I leave, no problem as I can now adjust it from anywhere in the world. If I want to turn the air conditioning on to cool it down before I arrive, I just pull out my iPhone and adjust the thermostat on my way in. So far this device and App have worked really well.
Installation – While I have installed thermostats myself in the past, I decided to let my electrician do it since I had him out working on other things anyway. It didn’t take him long to wire it up. Once It was installed all I had to do was set it up via the iOS App (works on Android too) and connect it to my WiFi network and pair to my account. From that point I could control it from my iPhone or iPad inside the building or via the internet from anywhere. The only thing that I can’t seem to figure out how to do is to switch it from Heat to Cool or to Auto from the App. I can do this from the panel itself, but not remotely. Otherwise, I have the control I need from the App.