The Best of 2020: Technology

One of my favorite categories to talk about and engage with others on is technology. Not only is it my day job but I would consider technology to also be a hobby and lifestyle of mine. Surprisingly 2020 gave us a lot of new technology; I guess that’s one thing that the pandemic couldn’t hold back. Some things were delayed, other things are supply constraint, but after it’s all said and done, nothing really got cancelled because of COVID. Good things come to those who wait so my top three picks this year were all released within a week of each other.

In order of release date, here are my three picks for best piece of technology sold in 2020:

Xbox Series X – November 10 | $499

The next generation of gaming is here! Finally we have solid state storage standard and get the amazing features like 120 frames per second and ray tracing. These are still really hard to find along with its counterpart the Sony PS5 due to high demand and low supply. Earlier this year I wrote about how you may want to put a new TV on your list as well to take full advantage of this new hardware.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max – November 13 | Starts at $999

The iPhone design is all new this year and Apple finally brought back the flat edge design that the iPad Pro has had for a few years now. In addition to the great new design, all new iPhones get 5G, OLED displays, and new colors. The best of them all, the iPhone 12 Pro Max, includes major changes to the three camera system producing some of the best photos you can get out of a smartphone. Two really great things about the new iPhones Pro are storage and video. Apple starts the Pro Max out at 128GB which is the sweet spot of storage for me. Lastly, the new iPhones Pro take HDR (Dolby Vision) video which may not seem like much, but when you watch it on your phone or an HDR TV, you really see the difference. I don’t want to take any other kind of videos again.

Apple MacBook Air – November 17 | Starts at $999

Earlier this summer Apple mentioned they would be ditching Intel for their processors and moving to their own, dubbed Apple Silicon. Now we have the first set of Macs which include the new Apple Silicon processors, the M1. It’s crazy to think that for only $999 you can get a tiny little laptop that has all day battery life and is faster than 90% of the computers out on the market, right now. We’ll probably never see leaps and bounds like this in computers again, so we have to relish it while it’s here. Anyone who asks me what computer they should buy, before they can finish I blurt out “MacBook Air with M1”. It’s great for everything from web browsing to professional video editing. It’s truly a great computer at a great price.

Honorable mention:
LG CX OLED 65″ TV | April – $2199.99


Check out more of my ‘Best of 2020’ —> Here

Apple Watch Series 6 Review: Time Matured

Another year, another Apple Watch. Even amid the craziness of 2020 Apple found time to release an update to one of their still emerging products. I’ve been a fan of the Apple Watch since day one and it keeps getting better and better with each revision. I purchased the Apple Watch Series 6 on launch day making this my fifth watch since the original in 2015.

Just like last year, there aren’t a lot of major changes, especially when views as a year over year change. The Series 6 still looks the same and comes in the same sizes as the Series 4 and 5. The biggest three changes this year are the addition of the blood oxygen sensor, new case colors, and better always-on display.

The Series 5 finally gave me a feature that I’ve been longing for ever since the first Apple Watch, the always-on display. This allows you to view information on your watch without having to raise or flip your wrist. The Series 6 expands on that with a brighter display that allows you to see it better in sunlight (in always-on mode).

Something that is pretty relevant right now with COVID-19 being a respiratory disease, is the ability to measure your blood oxygen level. You may have seen this in your doctor’s office when they put a sensor on your finger to get your pulse and a percentage usually in the high 90s. Apple warns that this is not a health device so it should only be viewed as informational. I suspect this is just a liability protection until they can get FDA clearance like the ECG.

Apple Watch rear sensors

I used the Apple Watch blood oxygen reading and a traditional sensor and they both resulted in 99%. To me, this justifies the level of accuracy I would expect out of this device. Just like the ECG in the Series 5 (which is still present and the same in Series 6) I’ll probably only use this occasionally when I remember it exists. The watch will also take background measurements when you are idle, which could be interesting to track.

For the first time ever, we finally have actual colors in the Apple Watch. Instead of the usual silver, space gray, and gold finishes, we get an anodized blue and red finish for the Series 6. These look great in person with and have a similar matte finish as the iPhone 11. The stainless model also got a refined finish changing the black to graphite.

The model I went with is the Apple Watch Series 6 44mm Graphite Stainless Steel. Usually I opt for the Aluminum “Sport” versions, but after a few years of my watch face getting severely scratched I find the stainless model (which features a sapphire crystal lens) to be better against scratches.

In addition to a new Apple Watch Series 6, Apple introduced a lower-priced SE version. This is the same as the Series 6, but without the blood oxygen sensor, ECG, and always-on display. This creates a good, better, best structure to the Apple Watch tiers allowing a wider variety of buyers.

New watches usually come with new bands and this time around Apple debuted a new style called the Solo Loop. Similar to the original Sport Bands, this is a single piece of silicone that you can stretch around your hand to attach to your wrist. These bands come in 12 different sizes (1 – 12) to fit a wide variety of wrists. Downside to this is it’s not like shoes where most people know their size. You have to measure your wrist and hope it’s correct. Apple provides a printable measuring tool to measure your wrist. The tool told me I was a size 12, but I concluded a 11 would be a better fit. After getting the band, I could have gone down to a 10, but that might be too tight. If you but a Solo Loop band with an Apple Watch, and it doesn’t fit, you have to return the entire watch and band to get another one. This is a difficult online-only purchase as in-store try ons would be great for this item.

Update: I have since reached out to Apple about their Solo Loop sizing debacle. They have revised their return policy to allow returning of the band purchased with the watch. Apple also update their sizing guide to make it more clear that it needs to be a tight measurement. They are sending me a size 10 and a box to send them the too large size 11 back. To make things right, they’re also gifting me a Sport Band for my troubles.

Apple Watch on wrist
Apple Watch Series 6 44mm Graphite Stainless Steel
Wrapped in Longvadon Caiman Band

Of course you don’t have to use a watch band made by Apple. One of my favorite bands are made by the good folks over at Longvadon. They make luxury watch bands that pair great with an Apple Watch. Made to look like they came right off a high-end luxury traditional watch. The cost of these bands slots nicely between the cheap knockoffs and the really expensive Apple bands. My favorite thing about these Longvadon bands is they combine the traditional metal clasp with a buckle fastener, meaning you can just unclasp the watch and slide it off your hand instead of fiddling with the buckle. Pictured above is the ‘Men’s Whiskey Brown w/ Silver Details’ from their Caiman Series. It has a beautiful embossed crocodile pattern on top of high quality top grain bovine leather. The inside of the strap is very comfortable and soft. Shortly after I got my Apple Watch Series 6 I had a wedding to attend and the Longvadon watch band was the perfect way to class up my watch for the formal occasion. You can get your own Longvadon watch band on their website use my exclusive code ‘BEN20’ to save 20% off all products in their store!

There’s always a great reason to get a new Apple Watch, and this year’s lineup is no exception. With all the fitness and health benefits of an Apple Watch I recommend any iPhone user (and now their kids) look into being an Apple Watch wearer.

Like the watch faces you see here? Download those and more on my Apple Watch face page.

Read more about my thoughts on the Apple Watch

Beard Blog Tech Reviews: Apple HomePod

The gadget you don’t need until you have one

HomePod: The iPod that lives in your home

HomePod

The latest product from tech giant Apple is their own take on the very popular “lady in a cylinder”. The HomePod aims to fill the gap where the competition lacks in areas such as sound quality, ease of use, and aesthetics. I’ve spent the last month with the HomePod, testing everything I could.

It Packs a Punch

The Apple HomePod is a small cylindrical device that is about the size of a two liter soda bottle, with the top cut off. It’s covered in a thick mesh that feels soft but also sturdy at the same time. Inside, the HomePod packs a large upward facing subwoofer and seven tweeters around the bottom circumference. In between those there is a six microphone array for hearing your voice as well as to fine tune the sound based on the surroundings. The speakers and microphones are controlled by a stripped-down version of the fourth generation Apple TV. The processing power allows you to shout anything at it and it responds very quickly. 

High Fidelity

I don’t consider myself an audiophile, but I enjoy high quality music when I can get it. When I listen to music over bluetooth in my car I can hear the lower quality compared to playing over USB. That’s about the extent of my sound quality identifying experience. The HomePod does a great job of producing great sound in a small package. It sits next to my forty-eight inch, nine speaker sound bar, and the HomePod has noticeably better sound.

The music stopped and I thought “there’s no way she heard that.”

The sound output fills my living room with high fidelity music so well that you would think I have a 7.1 surround sound system setup.

Apple’s Music

The HomePod only knows one music service and that’s Apple’s own Apple Music. That means the HomePod cannot play music from Spotify, Tidal, Google, or any other music service out there. You can play songs from Apple’s giant library, your own iTunes library, or songs you’ve previously purchased from iTunes, so there is a lot of variety. If that is not enough for you, you can still stream whatever you like from an iOS device to the speaker, just like you AirPlay to an Apple TV. The benefit of using Apple Music on the HomePod is you don’t need your iPhone or iPad to play it. In fact, if you turned off all your devices, it will still be able to play music from Apple’s streaming service. If you’re thinking of getting a HomePod, switching to or signing up for Apple Music is definitely worth it.

Hey Siri

Beyond playing great music, the HomePod packs the same helpful assistant as iPhones and iPads. Her name is Siri and she is very willing to help you any way she can. The HomePod doesn’t have a screen or a way for you to interact with anything, so Siri is limited. Speaking “Hey Siri…” into the air turns her attention towards you as she hangs on your next words. I’ve had moderate success with asking Siri random questions. I’ve been using Siri for a long time so I know how to ask her things and what she can and can’t do. Here are some things I asked my HomePod that resulted in the correct answer on the first try: What is 60g in oz?; What is the scientific name for a sloth?; How many tablespoons are in 20oz?; Who is Michael B. Jordan?; Who sings purple rain?

Contrary to your iPhone, Siri on the HomePod doesn’t know who you are. Whomever sets up the HomePod initially can choose to allow some details to be passed through the Apple account, but it’s still very limited. The nice thing about this is anyone that can yell “Hey Siri!” can control the HomePod. This can also cause some disagreements between people who want to hear two different songs.

One of my favorite HomePod activities is when I wake up with a random song in my head, I can shout out loud and have it played

One place where the HomePod excels over the competition is how well it can hear you. Even at whisper with music playing the HomePod picks up the “Hey Siri” command. I was in my kitchen cooking with the exhaust fan on, the HomePod was about twenty feet away with a wall between us. The HomePod was playing something from Apple Music when I said “Hey Siri skip” at a volume that a person next to me would struggle to hear. The music stopped and I thought “there’s no way she heard that.” The next song began to play and I was taken aback by how well it could hear my over all the noise.

The Kit of Home

Another way Siri on the HomePod is helpful is by controlling HomeKit devices. These are smart home devices that are compatible with Apple’s home ecosystem. I have structured the smart devices in my home around this ecosystem allowing me to take full advantage of Siri for automation and control. By shouting at the HomePod I can close my garage doors, turn up the heat, turn on/off lights, and trigger scenes I have setup. homepod The HomePod also acts as a HomeKit bridge that allows you to (if you don’t already have an Apple TV) access your HomeKit devices from outside your home network. 

Who should buy one?

If you’re deeply invested in Apple’s ecosystem (which is easy to do) with a subscription to Apple Music, HomeKit compatible devices (Philips Hue bulbs fit this bill), like listening to music in your home, and use an iOS device; the HomePod is definitely for you.

It’s going to be hard to find a lot of people that meet those criteria, which is Apple’s fault, but at the same time it helps get more people into their ecosystem.

One of my favorite HomePod activities is when I wake up with a random song in my head (which happens almost every morning) I can shout out loud and have it played, and it sounds great!

Measuring the Competition

Apple is late to the “lady in a can” game, which seems to be their modus operandi as of late. There is plenty of competition in this space and surprisingly the first mover here was Amazon with their Echo line. Amazon has released nine products with their Alexa assistant before the HomePod shipped. Google now has three different types of devices that use the Google Assistant for your home. Amazon, Google and Apple’s devices all have the same functions; play music, control smart devices, and try to answer your dimwitted questions.

Which one is the best? That’s a hard question to answer for everyone, and each person you ask might have a different answer. The best one for you is which system you’re invested in. Do you have Apple products throughout your home or are you more in the Google ecosystem? Amazon has the advantage of being the cheaper solution and throwing their products at consumers every way possible. It’s more likely you know someone with an Amazon product in their house than the other two.

HomePod

Apple’s HomePod is another great first generation product. A lot of people are comparing it to the the original Apple Watch, which is fair. Both of those devices are late entries to a new market for Apple and so far, both have been received very well. My time with the HomePod has been great and I don’t regret the purchase at all. I’m looking forward to the near future where Apple makes smaller/cheaper versions of the HomePod that I can stick in various places in my house.

In summary, John Gruber put it best when he wrote, “What AirPods are for your own ears, HomePod is for your home.”.

 

Read more of my tech reviews here!

How Do You Send Money?

Besides writing a check, how else can you send money to someone?

It’s 2017 and most people I know still write checks to give money to someone else. You would think by now technology has solved this problem of carrying a checkbook, writing out specific information, and bringing that to the bank. This ancient technique has finally been updates, for the most part.

There are numerous ways to send money to another individual or business, whether is to pay a bill or a gift, a lot of services exist for this sole purpose. Venmo, PayPal, Square, and PopMoney are three popular services, but it seems most banks offer their own version. These money sharing services often charge a fee when using a credit card, but most of the time there is no charge to use debit from your checking account. The issue with using an app to send money is that the funds live in the app and the recipient has to withdraw or transfer the money to use it. In rare instances, someone may keep the funds in the app and use it elsewhere, this is common when using PayPal. Think of someone you know that you’ve written a check to in the past. Odds are that they wouldn’t know what to do if you send them money via Venmo.

Enter Apple’s solution to this problem: Apple Pay. Ever since Apple debuted Apple Pay in 2014, I’ve been wondering how I can use this to pay another individual. While not as simple as holding your iPhone up to an NFC reader, Apple proves they have taken the time to think this through. Basically, you can send someone money through your iPhone to another person who has also has an Phone through the iMessages app. The way they do this is by giving you an Apple Pay gift card that you can load money on to send to other people. The great thing about this gift card is you can use the loaded/transferred funds anywhere that accepts Apple Pay, right from your iPhone. You can also transfer this money to your bank account, which should be free to do. If you send money to another person through Apple Pay by using a credit card, you’ll be charged a fee of about 3% of your transfer amount. This is to pay the credit card fees, so Apple isn’t making any money of this transaction. This transfer fee is standard throughout all the popular money sending services, but differs in actual percentage.

vamers-fyi-gadgetology-wwdc-2017-ios-11-gets-better-imessage-p2p-apple-pay-03

A lot of retailers are moving to this “gift card” scenario where you load money on to a card and use that to pay, usually through a smartphone app. Starbucks is the biggest one I’ve used and they entice you to use it with rewards resulting in free items. The kicker with Starbucks is you can reload your card using Apple Pay, which makes this new system work.

Apple Pay person-to-person will be launching later this fall. This new money transfer system will take a very long time to catch on, if ever. The older generations, who actually use smartphones, will probably never get on this program. Don’t expect that $10 birthday check from your grandparents to go away any time soon.

What’s next for Apple’s flagship iPhone?

iPhone 7s, iPhone 8, or iPhone Pro?

For the past seven years, Apple has released a new flagship iPhone in the fall, usually at the tail-end of September. This year will be no different as we prepare for what might be the biggest iPhone change since the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. With so many rumors swirling around the ether, it’s hard to sort through trash to find treasure. Let’s only talk about the facts that can be verified or have a higher degree of likeliness.

iPhone 7s and iPhone 7s Plus

Just like the last 3 years, we’re going to see another pair of similarly featured phones in two sizes. The smaller of the two will retain the 4.7” diagonal screen size with a single rear camera. The Plus variant will continue to have a 5.5” diagonal screen with dual rear cameras. This is not any big change over last year’s duo. The only two big changes I can see happening on this front are the addition of wireless charging and increased water/dust resistance.

If you’re not familiar with mobile device wireless charging that’s been around for quite some time in Android phones, it’s close proximity power transfer. Your device sits on a conductive pad that transfers power to your device through the back of the case. It’s not truly wireless because this conductive pad needs to be plugged in with a wire, and your device still needs to contact the pad to receive power.

Other features in these models that could make an appearance are new color finishes, better image signal processing, and higher storage tiers.

iPhone Pro

The rumor of an Apple iPhone Pro surfaced last summer when there was traces of a better, more expensive iPhone 7 Plus. This has since transformed into an all new form factor that will debut this year. The new form factor will sport a 5.8” diagonal screen, but the case of the iPhone will be much smaller aligning the physical size of the device directly between the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. The new screen will be powered by OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) which will give us deeper blacks and use less energy. The reduced footprint of the phone presents some challenges for making an edge-to-edge screen. The front facing camera and sensors will not be set in the screen, so there will be a small notch on the upper part of the screen. This notch will house the all-new front facing cameras, infrared sensors, and speaker.

This new form factor will also be the first iPhone ever without a home button. It is said the the home button function will be built into the screen, which will allow Apple to use the area where the home button previously sat. After the debut of 3D Touch and last year’s virtual home button, this seems like the culmination of research and evolution finally coming to fruition. Not much else is known at this point on the new yet-to-be named iPhone Pro. Speculation prices this iPhone above the current offering somewhere between $999 and $1499. Pricing that depends on what storage is offered and who they market this device to.

iPhone 8

Naming an iPhone is always kept under wraps until presentation day, so we never know for sure what these things are going to be called. Ever since the iPhone 3GS, the iPhone releases have followed a X/Xs naming scheme. Canonically, the non-s years brought redesigns whereas the s years brought speed and internal improvements. This pattern was pretty much broken the last two years when we got almost all new iPhones with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, and not-quite-redesigned iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. My gut feeling tells me that Apple won’t break their trend of naming devices in order, regardless of what the new features are. I anticipate us seeing the iPhone 7s and iPhone 7s Plus. The outlier is the Pro model… They should just call it iPhone Pro or attach it to this generation by going with iPhone 7s Pro. I’ve seen some grumblings of Apple following the iPad trend and using generic names like iPhone, iPhone Plus, and iPhone Pro.

What Apple debuts is sure to be a hit and will sell millions of units. It’s going to be great to be able to have a premium model in addition to two already great form factors.

The Apple Watch : A Retrospective

On April 25, 2015, I received my first generation Apple Watch Sport and Apple Watch. You can read my original review here, where I talk about moving away from traditional watches and a Fitbit. Now, a year later I still have my same Apple Watch, and a whole new love for it.

Over the last 12 months, I have worn my Apple Watch 99% of the time I was awake. There may have been a day or two I forgot to put it on or did not charge it. After so long, it now becomes habit to want to check my wrist for messages, activity, and weather. At it’s core, which is receiving iPhone notifications, telling the time and showing me on-demand information on the watch face, the Apple Watch is a necessary device for my lifestyle.

Between my wife and I, we accumulated a good collection of sport bands in various colors to keep the look fresh. One of the joys of the Apple Watch is changing the band every morning to better match my clothing choice for the day.

I’ll admit that I don’t use the Apple Watch to it’s full technological extent. Third-party apps, different faces, and glances have all become secondary features. The watch is now more of an appliance in my life and a fashion accessory. That’s more than I can say for my iPhone which is somewhat an appliance, but more an entertainment device.

After a year, what I use my Apple Watch for is very simple:

  • Telling time (like a traditional watch)
  • Keeping track of time (alarms, timers, etc.)
  • Checking the weather (watch face complication)
  • Tracking activity (workouts, steps, standing, etc.)
  • Getting alerts from my iPhone (iMessages, emails, etc.)

That’s about it. Can’t imagine what my day would be like without it.

As Apple said, this is a very personal device indeed.

 

My home is smarter than yours.

“Smart Home” electronics are the current flavor of the month. Manufacturers are trying to get everything in your house to be connected to the internet. This may sound like a benefit for the consumer, but do companies of ulterior motives? Are they using the cool factor to collect usage, demographic, and personal information? I don’t really care, things products are just damn cool!

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The Future is Not Here…

…and we may never see it!

When we read about the future in books or watched it on the silver screen, everything seemed so integrated and smooth. Now that we’re finally here [the future] is convoluted, fragmented, and restricted. Let me explain each of those as I drive my point home.

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iPad Pro mini review

It’s huge, bigger than you expect. Just like when I switched to the iPhone 6 Plus, the size becomes normal after a few hours of use. I have yet to get the Keyboard or Pencil yet due to supply constraints. Other than that, it’s fast and the benchmarks tell me it’s faster than my two year old MacBook Pro. I have yet to see this but time will tell. The future for the iPad Pro looks bright, I’m just waiting to see the light. 

The Beard Blog Apple TV (2015) Review

For the last 3+ years, there as only been one Apple streaming device. The Apple TV (3rd Generation) has been around since 2012. It was a small upgrade over the 2nd generation device which debuted the previous year. Since 2012, there has been a plethora of new devices to compete against the widely-popular Apple TV. Amazon, Roku, Google, and almost every TV manufacturer have introduced a way to consume content over the internet. Most of them have been hit or miss, but by 2015 Amazon and Roku have cornered the market. This left a hole for consumers of the Apple ecosystem since the 3rd generation Apple TV was limited to Apple provided apps only. 

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