Tech & Stuff (2016 Edition)

Some of the coolest and most useful items that I came across in 2016. Enjoy!
(in no particular order)

ELECTRONICS HARDWARE

MacBook Pro Touch Bar 💻
Why: There is no reason to have a touchscreen on a MacBook. Touch makes sense for an OS designed for touch (iOS). Adding touch to a ‘point and click” OS (macOS) is a mistake. Enter Touch Bar, the proper way to advance a traditionally static input mechanism. I find new ways every day that Touch Bar delights me. It is just really damn useful!
Link: Touch Bar on the new MacBook Pro

Snap Spectacles 😎
Why: Every so often a product is launched that seems silly, but upon closer inspection is actually quite amazing. Snap Spectacles came out of nowhere, and took much of the tech world by storm. Every piece of the puzzle was new and unique. This is definitely a case of don’t judge a book by its cover. The way in which they have implemented the circular video within Snapchat is very cool! Find a Bot near you!
Link: Spectacles by Snap Inc.

iPhone 7 Plus Camera 📱
Why: Every year we get a new iPhone, and every year there is one little extra bit that pushes it over the top. This year it was the camera on the 7 Plus for sure. The dual lens system gave you so much bang for your buck. You got a wider angle lens and a more telephoto lens, allowing you to have 2 distinct focal lengths optically, rather than having to resort to the lesser digital zoom. This system also gave you Portrait Mode, which yields beautifully blurred backgrounds that no standalone app on your single lens phone can touch. It kills me that the larger phone causes me pain in my hand.
Link: iPhone 7 Plus

Apple Watch 2 Edition ⌚️
Why: Since Apple Watch launched, I have not taken it off. This time we got updated software and hardware that really gave us a killer digital watch. Top that with the new ceramic material on the Edition and it’s bliss. I absolutely love my Apple Watch and truly enjoy wearing this series 2 every single day.
Link: Apple Watch Edition

AirPods 🎧
Why: Simply the best overall set of headphones I have used. Not just this year, but ever. You cannot really understand AirPods until you have used them. SO GOOD!
Link: AirPods

Apple TV 4 📺
Why: The Apple TV is the hub of our living room. We are an Apple household so this of course makes sense. I am finding more reasons to love the Apple TV, and the newly launched TV app is yet another. Such a great and versatile living room device.
Link: Apple TV

Osmo Mobile 🎥
Why: I have been taking photos in one form or another for many years, but video has always been in my peripheral. No one likes watching shaky cam footage, so hopefully the Osmo will help with that. It turns any mobile phone into a super stable video rig. It’s going to take some practice, but so far the results are very impressive.
Link: Osmo Mobile

UE Boom 2 🔊
Why: It sounds great and it’s waterproof! I keep this speaker in the shower for music and podcasts. It is really portable as well, so I can throw it in a suitcase when traveling for quality sound in a hotel room. It comes in a wide variety of fun color schemes too.
Link: UEBOOM2

Anker 60W 10-Port USB Wall Charger 🔌
Why: We all have a ton of stuff to charge nowadays. Stick one of these in a central location and CHARGE ALL THE THINGS!
Link: Anker PowerPort 10

SOFTWARE

CarPlay 🚙
Why: First time using it this year, and I instantly fell in love. No car maker on the planet makes a good (or even decent) in-car entertainment interface / system. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto fix this so well; why don’t automakers understand?
Link: Apple CarPlay

Spark ⚡️
Why: Email apps come and go, but this one feels like it could be here for a while on all my devices. One strict requirement I have for email apps is that they are on all my devices so I have a seamless transition between those platforms. This year Spark was launched for macOS, completing the triangle!
Link: Spark email for macOS and iOS

Bear 🐻
Why: Notes are tough, and I have used pretty much every app and system there is when it comes to capturing and storing note data. Bear came out late in the year and I have been giving it a go. It has a lot going for it with its 1.0 release. I am still using it, and in fact I am writing this post in it. Bear has a ton of thoughtful features and fits with my note taking really well. Like email, this kind of app needs to be across all my devices and have the same functionality, and Bear has it!
Link: Bear – Notes for iPhone, iPad and Mac

Setapp 🖥
Why: Although not officially launched yet, Setapp is an intriguing way to get and use Mac apps. It’s a subscription of sorts that allows you use any and all apps in the Setapp directory for a flat monthly cost. It’s an innovative idea for sure, and I would like to see it exist as an option, providing it works out for the developers involved. New apps have been added pretty regularly since I started using it. It is a really cool alternative to the more standard App Store model.
Link: Setapp | Your shortcut to get the best apps for Mac

GAMES

Pokémon Go
Why: I don’t think I have ever witnessed a game of any kind create the kind of mass joy that Pokemon Go has. To see so many people outside roaming around with each other searching for Pokemon is absolutely the reason technology should exist.
Link: Pokémon Go

Blackbox Puzzles ◼️
Why: When so much of the App Store is copycat apps that mostly play off the same themes and ideas, this game comes out of left field and crushes you with awesome! Words cannot explain the creativity and genius that went into making this game. Pause right now and go get this game. Now!
Link: Blackbox

PlayStation VR
Why: My first go at ‘modern VR’. I went in blind and purchased it without trying it first, and I was not disappointed! I am sure there are more immersive systems, or systems with better specs, but having a PS4 already, the PSVR system is an awesome entry point.
Link: PlayStation VR

Overwatch
Why: I have been playing this game all year (well, since it came out in May) and I still love playing it. Think of it as a new twist on Team Fortress. It’s a heck of a lot of fun and definitely worth trying if you aren’t playing already. I am on the PS4 as ‘grepjason’.
Link: Overwatch

Stardew Valley
Why: Sometime you just need to escape to a more simple life. Stardew Valley is a game that does just that for me. It’s a low stress game where you live in a town and interact with people, while taking on various tasks. It’s a fun game to play over a long period of time and jump in at any time for a little escape.
Link: Stardew Valley

Left Center Right Game
Why: This simple game was found by somewhat of an accident at a local Target. It’s a super small game that can travel with you anywhere, and is very easy to pick up. It has all the necessary game pieces in a small tube; just add people!
Link: Left Center Right Dice Game

Ticket to Ride
Why: A classic board game for all ages. This game comes in several varieties, spanning across different countries. Building railroad tracks across the country may not sound immediately fun, but once you get into the mechanics of the game you will be hooked. It’s a great group game.
Link: Ticket to Ride

Yoshi’s Wooly World
Why: When you think about game consoles, the Wii U isn’t usually first on your list, but Nintendo always has some great first party titles, and Wooly World is one of them. It’s a a great co-op game with a fun and new artistic style. I wouldn’t buy a Wii U just for this game, but if you have one sitting around, it’s a definite play.
Link: Yoshi’s Woolly World for Wii U

Super Mario Run
Why: A first party Nintendo title on the iPhone? Sign me up! Super Mario Run is exactly what a Mario title should be on the iPhone. It is a thoughtful and very well executed design that will give you joy to play.
Link: SUPER MARIO RUN | Nintendo

HOME

Vacuvita
Why: Wasting food sucks. This handy item helps you keep a wide variety of food for longer periods!
Link: Vacuvita | Vacuum Storage

Microtech Ultratech Knife
Why: No one really needs this, but it’s a really neat automatic deployment knife AND it’s Boba Fett themed! Quick video I made of it .
Link: Microtech Ultratech Bounty Hunter OTF Automatic Knife

GameFrame
Why: Sometimes you just need super cool visuals, and the GameFrame delivers! Awesome pixel art display to amp up the cool in any room you put it in.
Link: Game Frame

URB-E
Why: I researched all over the web when looking for a “last mile” vehicle, and the URB-E looked to be the best quality and provided a great set of features. I use this electric scooter to get from my house to the train station, and then from the train station to work. It’s a great little electric scooter and the build quality is fantastic.
Link: URB-E Foldable Electric Scooter

Simplehuman Soap Dispenser
Why: Your desk is organized, why not your shower? I found this thing on Amazon, and it has been a shower game changer. Keeps your shampoos and soaps organized and you always know exactly how much is left.
Link: simplehuman Triple Wall Mount Shower Pump

FOOD & BEVERAGE

La Croix
Why: I need to be consuming more water, heck we all probably do. From the second I tried one of these tasty beverages, I was hooked! For the first time in my life (except for maybe military basic training), I am now drinking the proper amount of water, and loving it.
Link: LaCroix Sparkling Water

Philz Coffee ☕️
Why: It continues to be my favorite coffee joint on the 🌎!
Link: Philz Coffee

CLOTHING

Reebok Men’s Zprint Run 👟
Why: You shouldn’t wear shoes if they aren’t comfortable. These Reeboks are the most comfortable shoes I have worn in a long time. So much so that I bought 4 pairs in various colors. They are available in Men’s and Women’s.
Link: Reebok Men’s Zprint Run

Hickies Lacing System
Why: Life is short, stop tying your shoes. Turn any shoe into a slip on, and add fun colors while you’re at it.
Link: HICKIES – No Tie Elastic Shoelaces

Stance Men’s Boba Fett Crew Socks
Why: They are Star Wars socks, what more do you need to know!?
Link: Stance Mens Boba Fett Socks

Problem: Live Stream Three Inputs

FOREWARD

Recently I had a problem come up that needed to be solved with a hardware & software solution.
Heads Up Warning: This happened to be a work problem, so I will intentionally be somewhat vague about the content. This may make some of the choices seem weird, but at the end of the day, trust me, it worked for the particular need.

PROBLEM

There are three independent video sources that exist in a room. Each of these video sources is a different combination of signal type and resolution (fortunately they are all digital signals). The three video sources need to be composited together into a single feed that can then be streamed live to an undetermined amount of users spread across the globe (10 years ago that would have been scary and really costly, but in 2016, not so much, thankfully). There are a number of different ways this can be accomplished depending on budget, system complexity, and system footprint. I went in with a moderate budget in mind, and a footprint of a single Pelican Case for transport. I wasn’t too concerned about complexity since I would be the only person operating the system; it just needed to be repeatable.

DIGITAL VIDEO SIGNALS
– VIDEO SIGNAL 1: 1920x1080p@60 via HDMI
– VIDEO SIGNAL 2: 1920x1080i@30 via HDMI
– VIDEO SIGNAL 3: 1680×1050@60 via DVI

SOLUTION

Ok, so here is what I did! First let’s talk about hardware and how I connected it all.

HARDWARE
– 15″ MacBook Pro (2016 – Max Specs): Serves as the hub of the entire setup. This system has 4 ports for I/O and I used them all! (2) USB 3.0 Ports and (2) Thunderbolt Ports.
UltraStudio Mini Recorder: Captures ‘1920x1080p@60’ video signal from HDMI and feeds into MacBook pro via Thunderbolt.
UltraStudio Mini Recorder: Captures ‘1920x1080i@30’ video signal from HDMI and feeds into MacBook pro via Thunderbolt.
AV.io HD: Captures ‘1680×1050@60’ video signal from DVI and feeds into MacBook pro via USB 3.0.
– USB to Ethernet adapter. All network traffic is going over ethernet to ensure maximum throughput for stream output.
– GoPro Type Camera: This camera is for capturing a general ‘room feed’. It is a very small battery operated camera which means I can put it almost anywhere without being intrusive to the people it is recording. Nice wide angle to really get the whole room.
Pocket Cinema Camera w/ lens: This allows me to capture screen feeds of lower resolution equipment without needing a scaler with every conceivable input and output. Set everything up correctly and you would never know it’s a camera pointed at a screen. Since I never know what sources I will be up against in a given environment, this is a foolproof way to ensure I can get the feed.

Streaming Hardware Configuration Diagram
Streaming Hardware Configuration Diagram

SOFTWARE
– For the actual distribution of the stream, I am using http://Ustream.tv. There are an almost limitless number of streaming services available today, and there may be one more appropriate for me, but Ustream offered exactly what I needed for a reasonable price, and most importantly allowed me to lock down the stream with a password so I can manage who is viewing. (Yes that is not super secure, but for this purpose it was good enough)
– In order to effectively composite 3 feeds into a single feed, I needed some kind of software component. Since the events that would be streaming were live, it made sense to have the ability for ‘live event extras’ like switching, lower thirds, and title cards. I decided to go with Wirecast from Telestream. (When I was testing this whole solution out, it was on version 6. This worked ok, but was hitting the CPU really hard and the system ran at about 75% utilized consistently. Good news is that Wirecast is now on version 7, and enables the use of the GPU so CPU load is WAY LESS!)

Viewer Interface Mockup
Viewer Interface Mockup

There you have it, live streaming 3 video feeds It was a fun exercise and the result was really great! As always, I hope this was in some way helpful for someone out there looking to do something similar. Feel free to reach out with any questions!

Apple Watch

I ordered an Apple Watch at 12:01am on April 10, 2015. After receiving the watch, setting it up, and using it every day for what I consider a good amount of time, I can now give my initial thoughts on the device.

First, let’s start with what Watch I ordered. I had been thinking about which model to get since the Watch was announced. After all that time, I ended up ordering the model I initially thought I wanted. The model I chose was the 42mm Stainless Steel Watch, paired with the Stainless Steel Link Bracelet. I also ordered a Green Sport Band as a secondary band option.

Before I get into the actual Watch, I want to start out with the bands. The bands that Apple has created are nothing short of amazing and an example of truly brilliant design.

The link bracelet is comfortable and low profile. This is very helpful when typing on a MacBook, as anyone who wears a watch regularly can attest to. Unlike most watches I have worn, this band is not scraping all over the top of my aluminum laptop. The butterfly clasp is smooth and engineered impeccably. Probably the most amazing aspect of the band is the way in which it is sized to fit your wrist (by removing and adding links). Most likely, every metal watch band you have seen has a link system that uses small pins which you have to pop out with tools to add and remove links from the band for sizing. The Apple Link Bracelet goes way above and beyond this method. Each link has a small button on it, and when pressed, elegantly separates from the adjoining link. Then, you simply snap the two open ends back together. If this isn’t making sense, check out this short video demonstration I made. For anyone who has ever sized a watch, this new method feels like magic.

I ordered the Green Sport Band as well, so I would have something more appropriate for exercise, or just when I felt like changing things up to a more bright and fun mood. Much like the process of sizing the Link Bracelet, changing bands on the Apple Watch is as simple as pressing a button and sliding the band out of the Watch. If the Link Bracelet is ‘really comfortable’, then the Sport Band is ‘really, really comfortable’. No watch band has ever felt so smooth and seamless to me. It feels as though the band is simply part of your wrist, rather than being wrapped around it.

Ok, now I can talk about the Watch itself. I very much appreciate the design and function of the hardware. The screen is bright and brilliant, and shows well in both sunlight and shade. Unlike some of the other watches out there, the screen is square rather than round like a traditional mechanical watch. Square is my preference for a device like this, as I find round to be the complete wrong shape for the type of digital interactions performed with this category of device.

There are two ways to interact with the Watch. You have the touch screen itself (complete with Force Touch), as well as use of the physical hardware buttons on the side (Digital Crown & Side Button). This is by far the smallest touch screen I have ever interacted with, aside from the slight exception of my wife’s 38mm Apple Watch. Although the screen is small, it is entirely useable and functional. Of course, there is not a full keyboard or anything like that, but again, that is not the point of the device. The software is laid out and designed for minimal interaction with maximum effect. Along with standard scrolling, you now have a new way to interact with a touch screen: Force Touch. This new interaction is accomplished by pressing slightly harder than normal on the screen, revealing new actions. It took some getting used to, but now that we are already seeing it in other areas of Apple’s lineup, this is going to become the norm in terms of interaction with Apple devices over the coming months/years, and I am eagerly awaiting this. The Digital Crown is one way in which the Watch calls back to its mechanical ancestor, but of course, has some newness injected into it. Scrolling with the crown is buttery smooth and feels exactly like I would want it to. Some resistance, but not too much, and it feels 1:1. The crown can also be pressed in for various functions (such as a double press to fast switch apps or a long press to activate Siri). Finally you have the side button. This button does one thing, and one thing only: bring up your favorites list so you can quickly interact with them. From there you can send texts, taps, sketches, or your heartbeat to people, and even call them. It’s a handy shortcut for someone who does a lot of interaction with other people throughout the day. Actually, this is not 100% true. It does do one more thing: double pressing this button acts as a shortcut for using Apple Pay. I was already sold on the idea of Apple Pay (and the like) when I was doing it with my iPhone, but now that I can remove one more step, it is perfect.

The Taptic Engine deserves mention, because without this, I think the Watch would not be as personal. Cell phones have had terrible vibration buzzers for years. I can’t stand how they feel or sound, especially when left on a table. I turned off vibrate on my phone years ago, and have never looked back. Too often I would ‘feel’ an alert from my phone that never actually happened, even when my phone wasn’t in my pocket. After turning off the vibrate mode, it stopped happening. Needless to say, it concerned me a bit at the announcement of the watch that it was going to buzz on my wrist to alert me of things. I had horrible premonitions of a cell phone buzzer strapped to my wrist. This would be terrible, and fortunately, it seems that Apple felt the same. Something else had to be created to take its place. Enter, the Taptic Engine. This marvelous little gizmo buzzes in such a way that it feels more like a gentle tap (sometimes too gentle for me, as I miss things occasionally). As with some of the other technology in the Watch, I am very excited to see this one move to the iPhone sooner rather than later.

Battery Life is always a concern when it comes to electronics, especially when you have something as small as the Watch. I would imagine Apple had to far underestimate the battery life on the Watch because the last thing you want is a review stating that it ran out of battery, especially when it’s a device that is attached to you throughout the day. After daily use I can happily report that battery life has not been an issue for me at all. After a full day of use, the lowest I have ever seen the indicator at the end of the day was 30%. I would say that is pretty damn good!

One aspect of the Watch that I initially had some frustration with, was the length of time it took some of the glances to update, or applications to launch. This problem existed with version 1.0 of WatchOS, but since the release of WatchOS 1.0.1, things have significantly improved in the speed department. Opening and loading is much quicker and more inline with what I would want from this type of device. I don’t expect instant, as they are not all native at this point, but that will improve over time and with updates. I expect we will see a much different and improved WatchOS in six or so months, and that is really exciting.

Being a brand new product and product category for Apple, there was plenty to speculate about in terms of the hardware and software. Even after all the speculation, announcements, and video walkthroughs, there were still a couple things that surprised me after personally using the Watch. The first thing was the very apparent amount of attention to detail that went into the band system. Apple makes little glass screens with big tech behind them, so it would be natural for someone to think the bands could come as an afterthought. This could not be further from the truth. The design and innovation of the bands and the overall system they use to attach is really a testimony to Apple’s commitment to the experience. The second item that was a surprise was the battery life, or rather, abundance of battery life. I was wondering how often I would need to charge midday, which would be very unnatural for a watch; but this doesn’t even cross my mind anymore, and I don’t ever find myself looking at my battery percentage through the day anymore. Finally, the third item which came as a surprise to me is how much I don’t feel the need to be touching my iPhone constantly. I have been very attached to my iPhone throughout the years (somewhat unhealthily probably), but since getting the Watch I have found myself leaving my phone on my desk when leaving for meetings, or plugged in on my nightstand through the morning while getting my day started. This would never have happened before the Watch.

I almost forgot Health and HomeKit! Health is a huge push for the Apple Watch, and I appreciate that. Along with the mental health benefits of not being tied to my phone, the physical health benefits are great too. Having a gentle reminder that I have been sitting too long while at work, or knowing that I have almost reached my move goal and deciding to take a longer walk to do so is a great way to slowly get myself into a mode of being more active. Even though HomeKit is not officially up and running yet, I have gotten a taste of this with my Watch by controlling our Phillips Hue Lights, and it feels like the future! When we start getting Siri integrated into the home, things are going to get really awesome, really fast!

watch-display-bb-201504a

The Six Plus

A month or so back I decided to give the iPhone 6 Plus a second try. The first time I tried the 6 Plus, it wasn’t really a good trial period. During the time I had it before reaching the 14 day return limit, I was traveling back to back on business trips and a personal vacation so I really didn’t get to assess it as a normal everyday device.

While using my iPhone 6, in the back of my head I kept thinking quite a bit about how the 6 Plus may actually be a better fit for me. Paired with my iPhone 6 I also was using an iPad mini (with retina screen). Although everything synced between the two, I still had massive anxiety to keep everything up to date on both devices. This wasn’t really the fault of the devices or system, more of a personal problem really. I was pondering if I could get rid of both my iPhone 6 and my iPad mini and replace them with a single device, an iPhone 6 Plus. It seems a bit crazy, but from a usability standpoint it made a lot of sense because I could have everything on a single device.

Back to the Apple Store I went to purchase a fully unlocked 64GB Silver iPhone 6 Plus. Almost all my iPhones to date have been black (I had a white iPhone 3G). This was the first phone in a while that I decided to go with silver/white (it’s beautiful). So began the testing; I put both the iPhone 6 and iPad Mini in the drawer and commenced single device mode. The first couple weeks were somewhat awkward as the phone is so much larger than any previous phone I have ever had. One concern I had was with apps that were “iPad Only”. The good news is that this trend of iPad only has fallen off quite a bit and most apps have moved to being universal. The only major iPhone only app that I use is a company app, so I can utilize a work iPad for that. Honestly, with how big the iPhone 6 Plus screen is, I don’t see any reason for iPad only apps anymore. The phone really is a smaller iPad more than a bigger iPhone.

I do have to carry my phone differently now, as it really doesn’t fit in my front pockets as well. Throw it in the back pocket though, and it’s no big deal. A benefit of this is that it has freed up my other front pocket so now I can carry more stuff! One of the items is a Lightning to HDMI adapter so I can present and share content to external displays and projectors. So far, I have not sat on and broke my phone, so we are looking good.

There haven’t been any situations that have come up that made me long to have an iPad again so far. I am able to do all my daily work and personal tasks using just the iPhone 6 Plus. One of the benefits of an iPad was its battery life since it had such a massive battery. The 6 Plus is a huge phone which means more room for battery as well! I have never had a phone last as long as this one does. I go all day using it for everything that used to take two devices and I have no issues with battery life.

So, did I end up keeping the iPhone 6 Plus?YEP! I sold both my 64GB Space Grey iPhone 6 and my 32GB Space Grey iPad Mini.

I am a believer in the 6 Plus.

Quality Coffee Stirring

Do you need to stir your coffee and/or tea? This is not a super difficult problem to solve, but for me, a small electric stirrer is the best. I have had many of them over the years, and that is the problem. Quality. They are generally very cheap and with that you get the wonderful ‘opportunity’ to replace it at least once a year. Not only is that annoying, but also quite wasteful. After my last one broke, I gave up on them for a while (I even tried mounting the stirring end to my cordless Dremel, but that did not end well) until we happened upon a new one I had never seen. The Capital Handheld Milk Frother. It has great design, a quality build, and is also super quiet! It runs on 2 AAA batteries, and I load it up with Eneloops so I am not throwing batteries away.

It is about $15.00 and Amazon usually has it in stock, but Bed Bath & Beyond also has it as well.

It’s a handy little tool to have in the kitchen and has served me well for the last couple months!

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