Thursday, June 22, 2017

This video doorbell doesn't need batteries

I like the idea behind the video doorbells that will send an alert to your mobile phone when someone arrives at your front door. They also activate a webcam to give you an instant live view of your visitor.

But there are two things about the brands I’ve tested that stopped me from making one a permanent addition to my front porch. First, they quickly gobble up batteries if you can’t hardwire them to an electricity source. And second, the camera shows only one view: straight ahead.

The Notifi Video Doorbell System from HeathZenith avoids both of those issues. The centerpiece of the system is a a multi-purpose light bulb that screws in the socket of an ordinary porch light.

Attached to the bulb is a tiny video camera at the end of a 22-inch cord with a mounting bracket that can aim the lens  anywhere you want. Instead of the front door, you might prefer a view of an entry gate or the front yard.

The doorbell kit also includes a stick-on push button that only requires one battery and an indoor chime that plugs into any standard AC socket.

The bulb contains an LED light, a motion sensor and a built-in speaker so you can talk to your visitors. The camera captures the scene is 720p resolution and stores the video on your mobile device and online for 24 hours. A premium service that costs $5 a month will store all videos events for 30 days.

For more details about the Notify system, visit the HeathZenith website and check out the Notifi apps in the iTunes App Store and the Google Play Store.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Review: Amazon Fire Tablet

What’s the first app you install on a new tablet computer? For me, it’s Amazon’s Kindle app. I have to have my book library close at hand and tablets have become my preferred reading platform. Close behind come Amazon’s music and streaming video apps along with Amazon’s  shopping app.

And now there’s Alexa, the voice-controlled personal assistant that we have added to the household through two stand-alone devices, the Amazon Dot and Tap. Alexa delivers news updates and weather reports, dims the hall lights, plays music and reads my current Kindle book, picking up where I left off.

Clearly, I’m all in with Amazon, which is why I was pleased to get my hands on the Amazon Fire Tablet after Xberts chose me to write this review and provided the product for free. Amazon’s line of Fire tablets are the first tablet devices to include Alexa built into the operating system, making it a tablet you can talk to and one that talks to you.

The Fire Tablet I received is Amazon’s starter model that has a 7-inch high-resolution screen, 8GB of memory and an SD slot for additional memory. It’s the version Amazon sells for $49.99.

How can a tablet with those specs have such a low price tag? One reason is the Fire Tablet contains ads. When you wake the tablet you see a screen selling a variety of products. So far, I’ve seen ads for Band Aids, bottled water, Starbucks’ fancy drinks and a leasing deal on a Genesis, Hyundai’s new luxury car.

But more important than the ads are the myriad offers buy or sample Amazon products like audio books from Amazon-owned Audible or a subscription to The Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon’s founder.

The Fire is not designed to be a multi-purpose tablet computer like the iPad Mini or the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Its job is to help you live inside the Amazon ecosystem where it’s easy to play music from your Amazon-housed collection, stream movies and TV shows from Amazon and shop for things like dog food or kitchen appliances. In other words, all of the things we’ve come to rely on Amazon to provide. And it does that job very, very well.

Setting up the Fire Tablet took a little longer than I had expected. It had previously been registered to someone else - perhaps it was a returned or refurbished item - so I had to start by re-registering with my own Amazon account. That instantly got my books and other Amazon stuff loaded into the tablet.

The Fire Tablet runs Google’s Android operating system, but you would barely know that by looking at it. The home screen is populated Amazon apps and as you swipe left, you drill deeper into your Amazon world.

Each swipe shows pages that display your books, music, videos, games, audiobooks and the digital newspapers or magazines that you have subscribed to. The book or movie you’ve most recently accessed is featured on each page along with related content that Amazon’s algorithms think you might want to purchase.

There’s no Google Play store on the Fire Tablet. To get new apps, you go to the Amazon’s app store where you can download Pandora, Netflix, YouTube and other popular apps.      

That was fine so far, but where was Alexa? The app was not pre-loaded with all the other Amazon apps as I expected. It turned out that the operating system needed to be updated - twice, actually - before Alexa was ready to ready to run.

With Amazon’s Dot and Echo, the devices are always listening for someone to say “Alexa” to launch the service. On the Fire Tablet, the process is slightly different. Alexa appears when you press and hold the Home icon for two seconds. When you hear a chime and see a blue line at the bottom of the screen, Alexa is ready to hear your question or command. You don’t have to say her name to get her attention.

Users who are new to Alexa can use the Alexa app to personalize the service by selecting applets from a library of skills. If you’re already an Alexa user, your library of skills will be linked to Alexa on the tablet. One feature that I particularly like is how Alexa will read any of my Kindle books that allow that functionality. I just have to say “Read 1984” and Alexa picks up where I left off.

Alexa is a welcome and useful addition to the Fire Tablet. It’s an non-threatening introduction to voice control that greatly expands the tablet’s usefulness. Now I have another way to get my daily news briefing, tune in to my local NPR radio station, play goofy music for the little kids and get answers to like “How hot is the sun?” And, of course, buy more dog food.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A receiver for an HDMI world

I bought the Yamaha RX-V379BL 5.1-Channel A/V Receiver receiver primarily to get multiple HDMI inputs.

DVD player, Apple TV, Chromecast - they all want an HDMI connection.

For years I used two Harman Kardon receivers for my two home audio/video rigs. They had only one HDMI input so each had an external splitter and a tangle of cables to go with it. The HK remotes were also very confusing.

I initially ordered a cheaper Yamaha receiver with fewer features by mistake but Amazon's return policy let me send it back for a full (and fast) refund.

The RX-V379BL has all the connections I wanted - four HDMI inputs and one HDMI output. And it was was very easy to set up, though it did take about an hour and a half to wire five speakers and a subwoofer.

I haven't yet used the acoustic optimizer, a microphone that lets you customize settings to suit your listening position and room acoustics. But I did use the Bluetooth feature to pair the receiver with my iPhone. Now I can listed to podcasts in surround sound.

And now I have remotes that even my wife has mastered.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Phone case looks sharp, feels right

When my wife dropped her phone on the kitchen floor, the phone survived but her cheap case split at a seam. We bought the Caseology iPhone 6S case to replace the old case and she has been very happy with it.

The case is sturdy without being chunky and it adds a touch of style without being gaudy. She also says the textured back panel helps her find it by touch in her purse.

Monday, May 22, 2017

IMDEN magnetic blocks put little engineers to work

This is a longer version of a review that we posted on Amazon after buying and using the product.

It seems as though most new toys are primarily passive entertainment devices. My grandchildren’s rooms are filled with toys that sing, dance or scoot across the floor and they came that way right out of the box. All the kids or their parents had to do was insert batteries and flip a switch.

That may be fine for the little tykes, but I would like to see the older kids have a toy that would let them create something straight from their imagination.

That’s why I bought a set of IMDEN Magnetic Building Blocks for 7-year-old Luke. They have more tech appeal than the snap-together blocks he played with as a toddler with just enough technology to be a big boy’s toy and the ability to put engineering concepts within his grasp.

The IMDEN set comes with 92 block pieces in square, triangle, and hexagonal shapes. The pieces have embedded magnets that allow them to be easily snapped together to make a virtually unlimited number or geometric shapes. You also get two sets of wheels on platforms and a pair of towers that can be used to build a Ferris Wheel, among other things.

For ideas, there’s a 30-page booklet that contains pictures of more than two dozen creations along with step-by-step instructions to build a car, a helicopter, a penguin and lots of other objects. The magnets allow the pieces to easily join each other.

You can make an elongated rectangle to serve as a tail or a submarine body, or a build a pyramid for a nose or a dome. The magnets shorten the time between inspiration and completed project and and make revisions a snap, literally.

I dropped off the blocks at Luke’s house, then checked back with him a week later to see what he could do with them. He immediately grabbed the wheels and showed me how to build what he called an “animal car” — a Transformer-style vehicle — that he whipped up in about two minutes. You can watch him at work in the video below.

On another occasion, his friends tackled the rotating wheel with only minimal assistance from the instruction. And the girls in the group seems to especially like the letter and number panels that snap into the square blocks, allowing them to name their creations.

I liked the sling bag that comes with the blocks set. It makes clean up easy and keeps all the loose pieces in one place. But most of all, I liked how the blocks let Luke gave his active imagination an easy and rewarding outlet.

The IMDEN Magnetic Building Blocks are priced at $29.99 and are available on Amazon.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Household items

Here are some of the household items we have purchased through Amazon.