WGBH Innovation Hub Gadget Review – December 2013

Yet another installment of Boston Public Radio’s Innovation Hub‘s Gadget Guru, from yours truly. This is really quite fun. Check it out, two pieces of audio with the second being a web extra. They’re only a few minutes each, so give a listen. Hope you enjoy! Also, below the clips are my full reviews of each gadget; something I might do each time going forward. (Check out previous Gadget Guru segments here)

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Philips goLITE BLU Light Therapy Device


Manufacturer URL
MSRP: $199.99
Who’s it for: A thoughtful, if not unusual, gift for that moody uncle or sister, or that friend who just can’t get out of bed on time for class.

philips-golite-blueIt’s a well-known fact that as wintertime comes around the days are shorter and we spend more time indoors. The result is an unhealthy lack of sunlight. A byproduct of that is what’s commonly called the wintertime blues, or more scientifically, SAD, or seasonal affective disorder. But lets put aside the psychobabble and call it what it is – lethargy, a propensity to eat more, and maybe hitting the snooze button one time too many.

Enter the Philips goLITE BLUE Light Therapy Device, a portable and handy light that you use for a few minutes a couple times a day, and voila – welcome back that summertime you. The science behind it is quite simple: the blue light produces a particular kind of pure blue light that occurs naturally on very sunny clear days. Special receptors in the eyes absorb this blue light, which makes you feel more energetic.

And folks, it works, it definitely works. I was skeptical, I’d admit, but within my first 24 hours of use the results were clear. Simply put, I just had more pep in my step, more energy. I’ve been using it daily now, usually for 15 minutes in the morning and then maybe once or twice again throughout the day as I’m sitting at my desk working.

There are two models, the HF3332 (MSRP $199.99) and the HF3321 (MSRP $129.99). The major difference is that the HF3332 includes a rechargeable battery for cordless operation and includes an alarm clock. There are other minor differences but the basic and core value proposition is present in both models. There are no harmful UV rays or anything like that. The device is quite small, at less than 6×6 inches square, and it’s very light, weighing in at only 14 ounces.

The only warning that I found is one for anyone with bi-polar disorder, apparently that’s a no- no. So for anyone with bi-polar disorder, best you resist the temptation to buy this product.

What I like most: about the Philips goLITE BLU Light Therapy Device (that’s a mouthful) is how small and portable it is, but most of all that it works – it really does.

What I don’t like: Well, I’m a pretty tech-savvy guy, and setting the alarm on the HF3332 requires a PhD. It’s probably one of the least intuitive clock user interfaces I’ve experienced in some time – I actually needed the manual (gasp!).

Now can you imagine if everyone had one of these devices? Holiday shopping, driving and parking would be a truly joyous experience!




Wacom Intuos Pro Pen & Touch Tablet

Manufacturer URL
MSRP: $349
Who’s it for: The budding digital photographer or graphic artist.

intuos-proThis, folks, is a pen tablet. A pen tablet? Yes. A pen tablet. What’s a pen tablet? OK bear with me…

Ever try to touch up a digital photo with a traditional mouse? Or ever try to simply draw something on your computer with a mouse? How about either of those things with a track pad? Either way, it’s not all that easy and it’s far from accurate. Sure you get by, you make it work, but imagine taking it to a whole new level. A pen tablet is just like it sounds – a thin and flat touch-sensitive surface with a special pen that interacts with it, manifesting on your computer screen.

This is a pressure sensitive tablet and pen that allows you to do extraordinarily accurate and detailed touchups to digital photos, or create digital graphic art using natural pen control.  It’s also just a lot of fun. It does a wonderful job or bridging the digital/analog divide, using a method you were taught in grade school – that of pen and paper.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s a learning curve to use all of the features available to you – from quickly and easily changing your paintbrush or brush size, or quickly undoing something, but this device makes wonderfully intuitive. For example, to erase a line that you misplaced, you literally flip the pen over and use the virtual eraser on the top end, just like you would with a real pencil. It’s that kind of user experience that’s brilliantly executed in the Intuos Pro. That, and the handy buttons and dial located right on the tablet, so while you’re drawing with one hand, your other is on the tablet controlling certain variables. Again, there’s that learning curve, but for the committed this is a ton of fun. I’ve been using my Intuos Pro for about 10 days now, and each time I get better and better with it. Now I truly get excited about photo editing, as opposed to procrastinating.

While there are lots of pen tablets on the market these days, the leader is most certainly Wacum (pronounced WAH-kuhm), a Washington state based company. This particular tablet is the Intuos Pro Pen & Touch Tablet, and I played with the medium sized one (they also offer small and large). The Intuos line of tablets sits between their entry level Bamboo line of tablets and their high-end professional Cintiq line. The Intuos Pro is both wired (USB) and wireless, and its ambidextrous – just flip it over for left-handed use.

The Intuos Pro is Windows and Mac compatible and works seamlessly with a host of graphic design and digital photography programs but what really impressed me about Wacom is that my device came with some free apps, including a full version of Adobe Photoshop Elements (the little brother to the powerful and robust Adobe Photoshop), Autodesk Sketchbook Express (which by the way is also available for the iPad, but more on that in the Bamboo Stylus review), Anime Studio Debut, and a couple others.

What I like most: It’s given me so much more control over my photo editing process, its easy to go overboard actually, because its so intuitive and fun to use. Its also inspired me to do other creative and graphic arts, which is really cool. It’s a great excuse to sit down and put pen to paper, so to speak.

What don’t I like: There’s a learning curve for sure, there’s really so much you can do with it, not just with the pen but with the buttons on the pen and with the buttons on the tablet, so its easy to get a little overwhelmed at first. That said, I will add that Wacom has done a good job of thinking that stuff through, and they’ve published a number of helpful tutorial videos on their website, so I was able to go from novice to dangerously good pretty quickly.




Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard/Cover for iPad

Manufacturer URL
MSRP: $99.99
Who’s it for: Anyone who types a lot on their iPad, or wants to, or is reputed for chronic iPad typos.

logitech-ultrathin-kbTake my mother for example, she loves her iPad, which alone is pretty amazing because she’s quite a technophobe – but she’s also the queen of iPad typos.  She’s developed a reputation in the family for oftentimes funny typos. We need a degree in cryptography to understand her e-mails and Facebook comments. But let’s face it, typing on an touchscreen is hard and requires a little more attention and proofreading than most people have patience or time for these days. So here’s a nice fix: The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard and Cover for iPad.

Logitech has been around for a long time, they’re certainly one of the computer peripheral companies out there, and this device is no exception. This 8mm thick slab of plastic and metal serves as both a durable and surprisingly thin iPad cover and a keyboard. When the keyboard is serving as a cover, it works like any iPad cover – with a magnetic hinge at the edge of the iPad and cover. To use it as a keyboard, you pull the cover off the iPad’s magnetic edge and stand the iPad up horizontally or vertically in a groove in the keyboard in a comfortable viewing angle. It works over Bluetooth, and set up is a cinch. The battery is outstanding – it will last 6 months on a single charge, assuming average use of 2 hours/day). The battery charges over standard micro USB.

The keyboard functions like any other keyboard, a full QWERTY keyboard plus some nice keyboard shortcuts, like copy and paste, but also some handy function keys to go back to your iPad’s home screen, to control the music or video, to select text without using your finger, among others. You can effectively use the keyboard almost exclusively without having to touch the screen, once you get good with it. And the learning curve is very fast – it’s getting used to the special function keys and handy shortcuts that takes some time.

The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard and Cover for iPad comes in black or white but it’s important to note that if you have an iPad Air you’ll need Logitech’s iPad Air model.

What I like most: It’s just so practical and really makes using the iPad for work stuff, or writing in general, so much more efficient. It’s a huge boost to iPad productivity, especially if you use it for writing, or want to. If you don’t type documents or write longer e-mails with your iPad now, you will with this, there’s no reason not to. I also love that I only need to charge it literally once a year or so – that’s amazing.

What don’t I like: As would be expected, it’s a small keyboard. Keys are little congested – but hey, what do you expect for an iPad keyboard? Logitech did a great job with the keyboard design and layout, and there’s a surprising amount of functionality built into this little thing, so it’s an unfair complaint.




Tivo Roamio HD DVR and Streaming Media Player

Manufacturer URL
MSRP: $199.99, $399.99, $599.99
Who’s it for: The modern TV consumer: TV binge watchers, anyone looking for video content from a variety of sources, anyone looking to stream their recorded video to a tablet/smartphone.

tivo-roamioTiVo is back! Sure, they lost their mojo several years ago for two unfortunate reasons. The first, is that at a time when high definition TVs were coming to market in a big way, TiVo didn’t release an HD compatible TiVo for far too long so they quickly lost market share, and secondly because the cable and satellite TV companies, who already had a foot in your living room, were releasing their own DVRs that were HD compatible. The one-two combination really put TiVo against the ropes. Well, TiVo is back in a big way, and I couldn’t be happier about it. I’m just not a fan of the DVRs provided by the cable and satellite companies, and the TiVo Roamio is a very viable option.

Let’s face it, watching TV has fundamentally changed in big ways over the last couple of years. From binge watching, to serialized TV shows, to Internet based video and original content from non-traditional sources like NetFlix. While there are other home media servers and devices out there, like AppleTV, Roku, and even Playstation and Xbox, the TiVo brings the best of all of them into one device. Rather than go through a feature-by-feature comparison across all these devices, I’ll break it down more simply and start by saying that TiVo’s biggest strength is in its software – the user interface and user experience of the TiVo Roamio is almost perfect, and I’m not just referring to the classic TiVo menu sound effect.

The TiVo Roamio comes in three flavors: The $200 base model Roamio, the $400 Roamio Plus, and the $600 Roamio Pro. With these three models you get the options of recording 4 shows at once and 75 hours of storage, 6 shows and 150 hours, or 6 shows and 450 hours respectively.  The major difference though is that the $200 Roamio does not include TiVo Stream, to stream content from the TiVo to your mobile and tablet devices, but the Plus and Pro models do.  All three models have multiple HD tuners, built-in Wi-Fi, work with the TiVo mobile and tablet app for managing your TiVo and viewing channel guides or browsing content from the Internet, and TiVo’s near-perfect software. With that software you have access to a wide variety of online content providers, from Hulu, YouTube, NetFlix and Amazon Instant Video to Spotify, Pandora, Major League Baseball, and others.

Unfortunately, at this time, there are two major shortcomings with TiVo Roamio. First, at this time its only compatible with digital cable and Verizon Fios, it will not work with satellite TV providers. Additionally, only Xfinity subscribers in select Comcast markets can access pay-per-view of video on demand content. Here in Boston, I had no trouble getting my TiVo Roamio working with Xfinity and their PPV or VOD services with the addition of an Xfinity CableCard. And that’s another bit of a headache: you will need a CableCard, a little credit card sized device from Comcast, to get the TiVo Roamio working properly. Setting up the CableCard with TiVo Roamio can be a bit of a headache, but for me it was worth the pain.

With my TiVo Roamio Plus we can not only record up to six HD shows at a time and store up to 150 hours of programs, but we can very easily search for and view content across a variety of online content providers, from Hulu and YouTube, to NetFlix and Amazon Instant Video, and others. My favorite feature is the wireless streaming of content. Oftentimes, if I’m in bed, on the road, stuck at an airport, or in a hotel room unable to sleep, I can load up the programs stored on my living room Roamio and watch them remotely on my iPad, which is truly convenient. If I prefer, I can instead download shows that are stored on my TiVo Roamio to my iPad for viewing on an airplane or anywhere I don’t have an Internet connection.

Other experts agree, if you’re looking for a major upgrade to your DVR and digital content experience, TiVo Roamio is the way to go. Just be prepared to shell out upwards of $600 and a little work to get it working with your cable TV or Fios providers.

What I like most: So many things, but specifically the new software. It looks great, it’s a big upgrade from the old Tivo software. Its much faster and more responsive, and much more intuitive. I love that I can search for a program, say Arrested Development, and choose from which content provider I want to watch it – be it Netflix, Hulu, or Xfinity OnDemand. And the way Netflix, and others, are integrated with the TiVo software is just awesome – its elegant, intuitive, and just a pleasure to use. Also, I love the streaming. I like to watch shows I missed while I’m traveling and on the road, or even when I’m in bed, on my iPad. That’s so cool, that I can lie in bed with my ipad and watch Charlie Rose or Daily Show with my headphones and not disturb my wife, or do the same thing at an airport during a long layover.

What don’t I like: Setting up my TiVo Roamio with Comcast’s free CableCard was a bit of a headache. It’s not a very intuitive process, but it was worth it. Otherwise, there’s very little else that disappoint.




Drinkwell Platinum Pet Fountain

Manufacturer URL
MSRP: $69.99
Who’s it for: Anyone who spoils their pets, but especially folks with cats who lick from faucets.

drinkwell-platinum-pet-fountainA pet fountain, really? Yes, and hear me out. My wife and I have a dog and two cats. Firstly, one of our cats loves to jump onto counters or hang out in the shower to lick from faucets. She’s like a little addict, we can’t get her to stop, and its gross too right? I mean, one minute your cat is in the litter box and the next it’s on your kitchen counter licking water from the faucet. When you research this behavior, as we have, you find out that pets simply don’t like still water – water that’s just been sitting in a bowl on the floor – they seek out moving water. Now, as for our dog Elmer, he simply doesn’t drink a lot of water. When we’ve brought him to the vet for checkups and routine appointments, the vet always says he’s a little dehydrated. Couple that with our own observation that he simply doesn’t drink enough water, and the case is made – we need to step up our pet hydration methods! So with the Drinkwell Platinum Pet Fountain the faucet-water-addicted cat stopped drinking from faucets, and Elmer is well hydrated.

The manufacturer, Drinkwell, markets this device as an “innovative watering system.” How innovative it is, well that’s clearly subjective, but ultimately its just a water plastic bowl and fountain made with a water tank, a charcoal filter, and an adjustable fountain pump speed.

What I like most: With three quadrupeds you only have to fill the tank once every two days or so and leave it alone. It’s designed well enough that cleaning it is very easily, as you’ll need to once every eight weeks or so. With the exception of the pump and power cable, it’s also dishwasher safe.

What don’t I like: The water fountain itself, when its set to its highest pump speed, can be a little loud, but it’s only the sound of water falling into a bowl of water so its not horrible by any stretch of the imagination, and the water flow velocity is adjustable so its not a problem that can’t be overly fixed.



Fresh Roast SR500 Automatic Coffee Roaster

Manufacturer URL
MSRP: $169
Who’s it for: Any friend or family member who’s either a proud or closeted coffee snob.

Fresh-Roast-SR500When it comes to coffee, people are very divided. It’s like blue states and red states, only its dunkin and starbucks, right? I went to Beirut in 2004, and that was the start of my coffee journey. Today, I find myself obsessed with home roasting, but its so worth it. It’s not only fun, but its more cost effective over time.

Traditionally we buy whole bean coffee, nothing too fancy, just about anything Arabica. We grind beans each morning and we use a French press. The rewards are great – such good coffee, for either a nice afternoon cup of coffee, or for that morning coffee to go for the commute. With a home roaster, you can control the roast of the beans – a longer, darker roast for a “stronger” cup of coffee, or a shorter and lighter roast for something a little more delicate. My roaster of choice is this one, the Fresh Roast SR500 – known among roasters as a fluid bed roaster.

Scoop about 5 ounces of unroasted coffee beans (aka green beans), set the timer to roughly 6-10 minutes, depending on the roast you want, and it pumps hot air into the canister and causes the beans to circulate and roast evenly. There’s the first crack and the second crack – different moments in the roasting process – kind of markers to go by for the kind of roast you want. The best part of the roasting process? The smell. Oh the smell, like baking bread or roasting peanuts.

The Fresh Roast SR500 weighs in at 7 pounds, stands 13 inches tall, with a 7” diameter, like the size of a small blender or of a coffee grinder. The base is where the heat source and fan are, with a small display and a few buttons to control the timer and temperature, above the base is a canister – just a glass cup where the beans go, and on top of the canister is the chaff catcher – where the little peanut skin-like flakes that come off the beans go when the beans are roasting.

This style of roaster is, in my opinion, the most popular and most practical for the home roaster. Its so much fun watch the beans roast, and go from a small and very light greenish brown to an expanded, light, cracked, oily roasted bean.

Now there is a little skill to roasting beans, no different than, say, grilling a steak – you do have to know what you’re doing, but its not hard at all.  Like grilling a steak you can undercook or overcook it, and there are different grilling techniques for different cuts of steak. The same idea applies to roasting coffee beans. Some beans require longer roasting times than others.  There is no shortage of books and resources out there to learn about the different beans, the different roasts, cooling methods, and roasters.

So for the coffee snob in your life, look no further than the SR500 from Fresh Roast.

What I like most: That I can roast my own coffee beans! It truly is a wonderful hobby for any coffee lover. And hey, what a nice gift a bag of your own home roasted coffee beans makes. I’m all about giving coffee beans, and French presses, and scoops, and coffee cups to people for the holidays. A nice gift that will turn everyone else I know into a coffee snob.

What don’t I like: It’s loud, about as loud as a hair dryer. But that’s it!




iPad Stylus

MSRP: $5.00 up to $100
Who’s it for: Anyone looking to take notes or draw, paint, sketch with an iPad or tablet device.

My journey for the best stylus continues.

styliYou might think that using a stylus for an iPad is a little redundant, given its designed to work wonderfully with your own fingers, and while that may be true, there are a host of creative apps for the iPad that require something more. Back when the iPad first came out, some of the critics denounced it for being just a glorified iPhone, for being redundant and effectively useless. Some even said no one would buy the iPad. The reasoning behind that thinking was that these kinds of devices are primarily used for consuming content, like reading, watching videos, listening to music, playing games, that sort of thing. It’s quite clear now that the iPad, while a perfectly elegant device for consuming content, is also used to create content, and in many cases amazing content. There are so many apps now that allow people to create music with the iPad (even live and on stage), or create documents, even do photo editing and create amazing graphic arts.

So my search for the perfect stylus is for two reasons: first, something that I can use to take notes with any one of the many note taking apps, but especially Evernote’s Penultimate, by writing instead of typing. For me, in my work, I’m constantly scribbling down ideas on paper, in my Moleskin and on whiteboards but I’ve really fallen in love with jotting notes, sketching diagrams, mind-maps  flowcharts and the like with a stylus. And at the same time I’m using my iPad more and more to edit photos, to draw and sketch creatively. For that stuff I might use anything from Adobe PS Touch (Adobe’s iPad version of Photoshop), Adobe Ideas, a 2012 Apple Design Award winning app from a company called 53 called Paper, Autodesk’s Sketchbook Pro, or an app called Bamboo Paper from Wacom. While there are others, these are the ones I’ve enjoyed the most.

Back to the stylus. Thus far I have seven styli, with the most recent one arriving by FedEx just this week. Here’s a run down of the styli I have today:

And there’s one more I’d like to try, it’s also from Wacom, called the Intuos Creative Stylus (MSRP $99.95).

At the end of the day, what’s the big difference between these sticks? Well, a few things: first is and foremost is the tip, or the nib as it’s called in the stylus world. Some nibs are durable, some are quite soft, some have textures on them, some are small and light, some are thick and heavy. Other styli work over bluetooth and are designed to work with certain apps more seamlessly, to allow for more functionality. But what it really boils down to for me is ergonomics, precision, functionality and convenience. By ergonomics I mean, which stylus feels better in my mind, is most comfortable to write and draw with for extended periods of time. By precision, this is all about the responsiveness of the stylus once it touches the iPad screen; how quickly does the iPad respond to the stylus (latency) and how detailed I can write or draw with it. If I had to touch up a photo with great precision, or draw the patterns of the iron bars in the Eiffel Tower, which stylus is going to give me the most precise and detailed control. By functionality, I’m looking for a stylus that might work with more features or more seamlessly with a specific app (as 53’s Pencil is to 53’s Paper app – they’re made for each other, like a hand to a glove), and that might be via Bluetooth. With Pencil, for example, I can literally use the top end of the stylus as an eraser, just as you would with a real pencil. And lastly I’m looking for convenience, something that might attach to my iPad in some fashion. The Maglus magnetic stylus literally magnetically sticks to my iPad, which I just love, making it easier to keep track of.

Thus far, my favorite stylus is 53’s Pencil. It’s got the best of all those things with one big exception, and for me this is a big one: it doesn’t attach to my iPad. Even my $10.00 Q-Stick attaches to my iPad, so for $50, this is a big disappointment. Next to the Pencil, I’d have to go with the Maglus, which has a girth I like, and magnetically attaches to my iPad and is quite precise and fun to use. After the Maglus, I’d have to go with the Bamboo from Wacom, which like a traditional pen just clips to my iPad cover. While I like the Pogo Connect Bluetooth stylus, it’s not quite up to snuff for me when it comes to precision and responsiveness. I’m very much looking forward to receiving my Intuos Creative Stylus, but for $100 it better be amazing.

What I like most about a stylus: It unleashes a creativity in me, and I’ve really enjoyed using a stylus for touching up photos and drawing, painting or sketching (see my sketch of the Eiffel Tower). I’ve started to say goodbye to my trusty Moleskin notebooks, and even whiteboards, instead opting for note taking and brainstorming with the iPad, which makes such good sense on so many reasons, not least of which is the ability to sync my iPad notes with Evernote, or to email my diagrams to colleagues.

What I don’t like: First, the overwhelming selection of styli! It seems that just when I find one I like, another one comes out that I just have to get, as evidenced here. But primarily the biggest thing I don’t like is just how easy it is to misplace and lose a stylus. Unless it can attach to my iPad in one fashion or another, I’m really quite nervous about traveling with, say, my $50 Pencil only to leave it on an airplane.

The bottom line is this: If you want to try a stylus for note taking or drawing, start with a $10.00 stylus from your local computer retailer or from the display at checkout at Target. As a gadget guru, I have to do more, but there’s no reason why, like my wife, you can’t get by with a plain old stylus that does the job. And if you find you want more from a stylus, consider my list for an upgrade.

Search Amazon for iPad Stylus


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