iSadde ELM 327 Bluetooth OBD2 Module

iSaddle_ELM_327Being a geek can sometimes become pretty expensive. Different devices offer differing amounts of geek fun for the buck.
Every car and pickup manufactured from 1996 forward has what is known as an OBD2 port. OBD is short for on board diagnostics. The OBD2 port was originally mandated as part of emission control efforts.

There are plenty of consumer-oriented OBD2 port scanners. However, with the proliferation of smart phones and tablets, something new has come along that many people have yet to become aware of. Inexpensive Bluetooth and WiFi enabled OBD2 modules are just the ticket to pair up with your favorite smartphone or tablet.

Torque ProI purchased an iSaddle ELM 327 module from Amazon which is currently priced at $14.99 and is an Amazon Prime item. This particular unit will work with Android and Windows only, so I can only use it with my Android devices and not my iPad Air. If I want to use an OBD2 scanner with my iPad I would need to buy one that says it specifically works with iOS devices. So, if you intend to get one of these devices for use on an iOS device, be SURE that you search for iOS OBD2 and read the user comments to make sure what people that have purchased the specific item you are looking at have to say about it.

The iSaddle ELM 327 module simply plugs in to the vehicle’s OBD2 port. OBD2 ports are always located on the driver’s somewhere immediately under the dash. On my 1998 Ford F-150 pickup, the OBD2 port is located almost directly below the steering column just under the dash back a bit from the bottom edge. I can easily leave the unit plugged in full time if I wish.

To make use of the device after plugging it in, simply start up the engine and then pair it up with Bluetooth to your Android phone or Android tablet. On my unit, the Bluetooth password is 1234.

Next, it is necessary to have an app that can take advantage of the ELM 327 Bluetooth unit. In my opinion by far the best app available is an Android app called Torque. There is a free version of Torque and a paid version called Torque Pro that sells in the Google Play store for $4.99. I went ahead and purchased the Pro version figuring that the extra functionality was well worth the price.

With this setup, I have Torque Pro in my Galaxy Note 3 set up to automatically connect to the iSaddle ELM 327 module every time I take a trip in my vehicle. I have Torque Pro set up to automatically monitor various engine operating parameters and create a CSV or comma separated value file of each new trip. I have included GPS position history using the phone’s GPS, which enables me to bring each separate trip up on a map right inside of the Torque Pro app.

Torque Pro also comes with standard virtual gauges such as speedometer, tachometer, etc. However, it is possible for the end user to easily create his or her own virtual analog or digital gages. The graphics in Torque Pro are really quite good making for very realistic-looking virtual gauges.

Torque Pro is extremely customizable, so I would suggest spending a significant amount of time with the app looking through all of the different options. For example, I now have an instant MPG readout on a 16-year-old vehicle which I think is pretty darned cool!

I have to say this is one of the most enjoyable $20 dollars I’ve spent in a long time for this combo. Once upon a time people who were serious about knowing what was going on with their vehicle’s engine would spend a fortune on physical gauges. Torque Pro in conjunction with an ELM 327 OBD2 port module makes it possible to create as many virtual gauges as you would like and your particular car supports.

Fitbit Flex Review

Fitbit LogoOver the past year, I’ve noticed more and more people wearing activity tracking devices and here in Northern Ireland I tend to see Fitbits rather than anything else.  Fitbit has been advertising on TV lately too with “It’s All Fit” and I’m sure that there will be a good number of Zips, Flexes and Charges under the Christmas tree come 25th December. I’ve worn a Zip for nearly two years as part of my efforts to keep my weight down and on review today I have the next model up, the Fitbit Flex. Let’s take a look.

FItbit Flex Package

The Fitbit Flex comes in a neat transparent package that shows off the coloured wristband and opening the packaging reveals the fitness tracker itself, large and small wrist bands, a USB sync dongle and a USB charging dock.

Fitbit Flex Contents

The fitness tracker itself is the small black rectangular unit and it’s slipped inside a small pocket in the wristband to be worn both during the day and asleep at night. The wristbands are made of a soft plastic and are available in ten different colours with additional coloured bands on sale from Fitbit’s online store. The large size fitted me well and the smaller one will suit women and children. It’s not obvious in the pictures, but the Flex uses a push-through buckle to keep the band on. It’s a little tricky to get clicked in sometimes, but it keeps the wristband on and in the two weeks of testing I’ve not had any problems with the Flex falling off accidentally. The Flex is supposed to be water resistant to 10m (30ft) and while I didn’t go that deep, it did survive 1000m of surface swimming.

The tracker has a set of LEDs which show through the transparent plastic window on the wrist band. The user interface is simple with five round LEDs used to communicate with the owner and at a basic level, each dot represents a fifth of the way towards the daily target. For example, if the target is 10,000 steps, one LED is worth 2,000 steps. The picture below shows the tracker has measured 6,000 steps, give or take. Normally none of the lights are on but tap on the band at the tracker and the lights come on.

Fitbit Flex

The Flex has an internal rechargeable battery which lasts about 5 days between charges. To charge the Flex up, the tracker unit is taken out of the wristband and placed in the USB charging cradle which in turn is plugged into any available USB port. Charging is relatively quick, typically taking less than an hour.

Getting the activity data off the Flex is easy too, with syncing available between the Flex and both PCs and smartphones. Fitbit is agnostic with clients available for Windows, Macs, Android and iOS, though check compatibility to be sure as the phone or tablet has to support the Low Energy (LE) version of Bluetooth. Syncing with a desktop or laptop is a case of downloading and installing the app, sticking the USB dongle in and getting going. The dongle and Flex are pre-paired so there’s nothing to worry about there. Sync to a phone is similar – download the app from the relevant store and run it. The app will automatically search for the Flex and connect up. A Fitbit login is needed from fitbit.com and signing up for that is free. There’s a full lifestyle portal online which gives access to fitness stats from any web browser.

Personally I used my Flex almost exclusively with my Android phone (Nexus 4) and tablet (Nexus 9). The app shows daily activity, sleep patterns and can record exercise, weight, food and water if the information is added in conscientiously.

Flex Summary  Flex Summar

Different views of the data can be shown – on the left below is a weekly view. Contrary to indications, I didn’t spend Saturday lounging in front of the TV, but forgot to put the Flex on! The Flex can also track sleep patterns, though it can’t automatically detect sleep and needs the wearer to indicate the approximate time of going to bed and getting up.

Weekly Flex Summary  Flex Sleep Tracking

The Flex unit can vibrate too and vibration is used to give feedback to the wearer on attaining goals. It can be used as an alarm as well and although I wasn’t really keen on wearing the Flex in bed, the wake-up alarm worked well for me, prodding me to stir when I’d turned my other alarm off. I don’t normally wear a watch in bed so I did find wearing the Flex at night a little odd but that’s very much a personal feeling.

In the two weeks I used the Flex, I didn’t come across any other problems bar one time that the unit needed reset. I’m not sure what happened: I think I might have tried to sync with the Flex from both phone and the tablet at the same time but resetting the Flex was simple using the normal paperclip-in-reset-hole and no activity data was lost.

I came to this review as a Fitbit Zip wearer and to start with, I did think that the Flex was a little bit of a backward step as I couldn’t see the number of paces that I’d taken – the Zip shows this information on a small LCD screen.  However, over the course of the trial, I’ve got used to it and if I really want to know, I can do a quick sync with my phone to get the data. The Flex is much better than the Zip when it comes to wearing during activity and doesn’t get accidentally pulled off or left in the locker on trousers. The water resistance of the Flex is a bonus too. One downside is that the Flex doesn’t tell the time, so it can’t replace a wristwatch. For many people this isn’t an issue as they don’t wear a watch but for those who do, the Fitbit Charge is perhaps the answer.

The Fitbit Flex is priced at £79.99 RRP but can be found a little cheaper on-line.

Thanks to Fitbit for providing the Flex for review.

Grovemade Wooden Accessories

As a jaded IT hack, it’s not often my jaw drops but when I saw the sheer beauty of this desk arrangement, I had to put my dentures back in, metaphorically speaking. Grovemade handcraft truly stunning monitor stands, keyboard trays, iPad covers, iPhone cases and other desktop accoutrements. My desk doesn’t look anything like this, though I really want it to look like this.

Grovemade Desk Collection

 

The products are available in both maple and walnut, but I think the walnut really goes well with the brushed aluminium and the grain of the wood stands out that much better. There are some further cool touches with a little storage space underneath the keyboard.

Keyboard TrayAs you might imagine, these unique pieces aren’t cheap but they aren’t stratospherically expensive either. The monitor stand is $119, the keyboard tray is $79 and the pen cup is $39. Choosing carefully, these items could last a lifetime and provide a great deal more pleasure than a $5 plastic pen holder.

Walnut WatchAnd if you want wood on your wrist too, Grovemade are eschewing the trend to smart watches with a wooden twist on a traditional timepiece. It might be bucking the trend but at least it will still be compatible with your phone in 10 years time. With a choice of round or rectangular, light or dark, it’s on pre-order at $239 with delivery expected early in 2015.

Bracketron Smartphone Mounts Use Magnets

Bracketron Smartphone mountWhat do you do with your smartphone when you get into your vehicle? It’s not safe to hold it in your hand while driving. Bracketron, an industry leader in universal mounting solutions for today’s most popular mobile devices has come up with a solution. They have created two different types of dashboard mounts that your smartphone can go into.

The Earth Elements Si Dash Mount attaches directly to most hard and textured surfaces (including your windshield). The Earth Elements O2 Vent Mount can be attached to horizontal or vertical air vents. Both mounts are collapsible, adjustable and feature integrated cord management for charging cables to keep them out of the way.

Bracketron says these mounts work with the iPhone 6, Samsung Galaxy S5, Samsung Galaxy Note, and Google Nexus. Attaching your phone to the mounts is easy. All you need to do is stick a magnetic mounting plate to the back of your smartphone. They have 3M adhesive on them. It can be used with phones that have a case or ones that are without a case. Click your phone into place on the mount. The magnetic plates hold it in place.

Orca Gear to Launch at NAB

Orca LogoPro gear and accessory firm Orca has announced that their official launch will take place at the upcoming NAB Show in Las Vegas on 7 April.

With over 30 years’ experience in the film industry, Orca’s research and development team has created a top-flight range of gear bags and accessories. The team produced the entire Orca line specifically for the audio-visual industry, designing a range of smart bags and accessories, carefully crafted to carry and protect video, lighting and sound equipment.

Integrating with their new Trolley System, Orca’s designs include the Audio Bag, Shoulder Video Bag, Light Case, and Backpack, incorporating aluminium frames and multiple access points for both protection and convenience. Additional offerings will include the Rain Cover and LCD Hood, and the full product line will be on show at NAB.

Band Pro Film & Digital have confirmed that they will carry the range following Orca’s NAB launch. Amnon Band, Band Pro’s President and CEO, remarked: “These are the best bags I’ve seen in a long time.  We’ve always prided ourselves on carrying nothing but the best, and that’s what Orca products are.  I’m really impressed with their entire product line.”

Drop in with Orca at the Band Pro Film & Digital’s booth #C10408

Kanex Multi-Sync Keyboard

kanexlogo
Todd chats with Tracy from Kanex at CES Digital Experience about their new Multi-Sync Keyboard for Apple devices.

Although touch is great way of interacting with tablets and smartphones, it really doesn’t replace a keyboard when it comes to large amounts of text entry. In response, many manufacturers have come out with add-on keyboards that typically connect to the tablet via Bluetooth. These are generally useful devices but usually it’s one keyboard-one device and often there’s already a keyboard on the desk for the PC, so the desk simply gets more cluttered.

Kanex’s solution the Multi-Sync Keyboard which allows 3 Bluetooth and 1 USB connection to be maintained at any one time – Mac, iPhone and iPad. The user can then switch between connections, entering text into just one device at a time but being able to connect to up to 4 devices. Brilliant! Currently, it’s only available for Apple devices, but future versions should support PCs.

On-sale now for US$69.95 at www.kanexlive.com.

Interview by Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network.

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Omnimount PJT40 Projector Mount

Omnimount LogoIf you want to hang or support some piece of technology from a wall or ceiling, then Omnimount ought to be on your review list as they have a portfolio of mounts and brackets that will do the job for flat screen TVs, speakers and projectors. Todd and Don chat with Kevin Paulson, who has the latest ceiling mount, the PJT40, for digital projectors. They also discuss the merits of desks that go up and down to facilitate standing at work. Really.

The new PJT40 is a universal projector mount that offers easy one person installation and tool-less microadjustment in the pitch and roll axes, making it simple to get a perfect image in your home cinema. The PJT40 will be on sale in February priced at US$179, which Don thinks is a bargain. Omnimount products are available AV dealers throughout the US and there’s more information at www.omnimount.com.

Interview by Don Baine, the Gadget Professor and Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network.

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Ventev Battery Packs and Chargers

Ventev LogoVentev offers innovative combined battery packs and chargers for smartphones and tablets. Scott Franklin, Director, chats with Todd and Don about Ventev’s latest mobile accessories at CES.

External battery backs for smart phones and tablet are very common these days, but the benefit of Ventev’s unit is that the charger is integrated into the pack itself; there’s no need for additional external charger. Scott shows off three different packs in the interview;

  1. the powercell 6000+, a 6000 mAh unit ($74.99) that plugs directly into the mains electricity socket. Two USB ports, rated at 1 A and 2.1 A.
  2. the powerdash r900, a cylindrical 900 mAh unit ($39.99) which charges from a car cigarette lighter. One USB port rated at 2.1 A when plugged in and 1 A when running from the battery.
  3. the utilitycharger 2100, a charger only ($39.99) but powers from both from the mains and from a car lighter. Two USB ports rated at 1 A each.

For more information on availability, visit Ventev’s website at www.ventev.com.

Interview by Don Baine, the Gadget Professor and Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network.

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Podcast From an iPad

Podcasting has long been a multistep process for the majority of podcasters. There have been a few pieces of software written over the years that attempt to bring all of the podcasting tasks into single pieces of software, with varying results.

Most podcasters have a physical mixer to plug their mic(s) into, an application that records audio and can spit out an MP3 file, some way of editing the ID3 tags, an FTP program to upload the file to their server, and then post it to the back end web interface of a blog such as WordPress to generate their podcast RSS feed. None of these steps are really that hard, but because they are broken up they can be quite time-consuming. It reminds me of people who write paper checks to pay their bills each month and then send them off in the snail mail. The excuse is that it doesn’t take much time. The reality is that writing out checks to pay bills, putting them into the envelopes, making sure the envelopes are properly stamped and finally mailing them at the Post Office is quite time-consuming.

On the Mac I use a now-defunct podcasting application called “Ubercaster” that stopped being developed shortly after OS/X Lion came out. Ubercaster, which runs really well on non-updated Snow Leopard, can record audio with real-time audio effects, play interactive audio, record from Skype or other audio chat applications, edit and even upload via FTP. There is no other OS/X application I have found that can do all of these things the way Ubercaster can. Therefore my Macs will remain forever on Snow Leopard since Ubercaster will not run on newer versions of OS/X.

For some time now I’ve been periodically attempting to podcast from mobile devices, such as an iPad, a Nexus 7, and my Galaxy S3. While it is possible to record, edit and post from these devices, the process has been convoluted and more difficult than it needs to be. Also, the audio quality has been compromised.

I recently came up with a hardware and software combination that enables extremly high quality, no-compromise recordings on an iPad using a high-quality microphone like my Heil PR-40 that has an XLR connector. The piece of hardware is an iRig Pre and sells on Amazon for around $40 dollars. The iRig Pre (not to be confused with numerous other iRig models that offer other functions) runs on a 9-volt battery and can work with either dynamic microphones or microphones that require phantom power. The iRig Pre has a variable input gain that allows you to amplify its output signal so you can have more than adequate output volume. The iRig pre output plugs into a standard headset/microphone input jack on the iPad or even a smartphone such as the Samsung Galaxy S3. The audio quality coming out of the iRig Pre that records onto my iPad is excellent.

The iPad software app that I came up with to record podcasts with is called Bossjock Studio, a universal app for sale in the iOS App Store. It has the ability to load multiple carts, enabling interactive audio. It can render MP3 files. It works with many other apps including Dropbox. Bossjock even has built-in FTP functionality.

Bossjock’s audio quality is absolutely top-notch.

There is only one downside to Bossjock Studio — the MP3 file rendering process is slow. I contacted the developer about this and they say it renders slowly on the iPad because the MP3 rendering process cannot use the GPU and must use the regular processor. On an iPad 2 exporting to an MP3 file is pretty much real time. An hour long file will take about an hour to export to MP3.

However, the good news is on a new iPad Air the MP3 rendering time seems to be greatly sped up, likely due to the processing speed of the new A7 chip versus the A5 chip in the iPad 2. An hour long recording will render to an MP3 file on an iPad Air in about 15 minutes or so. That’s still slow compared to a tradtional computer, but easier to live with than real-time rendering on the slower A5 processor.

Getting a complex interactive MP3 file recorded and uploaded to the server is most of the battle. This leaves only the step of posting the file to a blog such as WordPress. If one is making the blog post via logging in to the backend of WordPress through a browser, posts can be made, but the process is way more clunky than it needs to be. Posting to WordPress through a touchscreen via a broswer is a rather torturous process. If only I could attach a mouse to my iPad… Sorry, not allowed by Apple.

So on the rare occasions I find myself going to a motel room, I leave the laptop behind in favor of increasingly-capable mobile devices that require only a fraction of the space. The process is much easier and more steamlined than it was, but still has some needlessly clunky aspects to it.

 

Practical Meter for USB Charging

Practical MeterWith the plethora of USB charging power sources and charging rates, it was probably inevitable that someone would develop a meter to measure the power going to a device. The bragging rights go to Utah-based Power Practical and the Practical Meter, a USB in-line power meter. Looking much like a USB dongle, 5 LEDs show the power transfer from 1 W up to 10 W.

Originally a Kickstarter campaign that met its funding back in the July raising nearly $170,000, the Practical Meter has been today recognised as International CES Innovations 2014 Design and Engineering Awards Honoree.  “Just last week we shipped out the 10,000 pre-order units we received during our Kickstarter campaign to have the Practical Meter come to market,” says Matt Ford, CEO of Power Practical. “It’s crazy that a week later we’re being honored by something as prestigious as the CES Innovations awards.

As a pure USB device, it will work with anything that charges via USB such as smartphones, mp3 players or battery packs. Practical Meter is available now for $24.99 online and includes a 3-in-1 fast charge cable with mini-USB, micro-USB and Apple connectors.

Practical Meter Charging