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.

Lenmar shows off the Chug Plug for your MacBook

lexmar

Jenny Simpson of Lenmar stopped by TPN in Las Vegas recently to talk about the company’s new battery pack for your MacBook computer.

The new Chug Plug can provide up to four hours of additional batter life and connects via the computers existing cable. It is Apple specific, so don’t expect to get one for your Windows PC. It has built-in smart technology that can detect how much power your Macbook needs and push extra if necessary. The Chug Plug will be available for $159 starting in March. You can check it out over at Lenmar.

Interview by Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network and Chris Davis of Health Tech Weekly

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G-Technology G-RAID Mini Review

External USB 3 hard drives are pretty common these days and GNC has reviewed several models in the past. However, this is the first portable RAID unit that I’ve had on my desk. On show here is the G-Technology G-RAID mini and with a pair of 2.5″ drives, the G-RAID mini offers a choice of RAID 0 or RAID 1 in a very attractive silvery metal case.  Let’s take a look.

G-RAID mini Shadow

The G-RAID mini comes in the usual blue and white G-Technology packaging and in the box is the unit itself, a power supply, a travel case, a Firewire 400-to-800 cable, a Firewire 800 cable  and a USB3 cable. The travel case isn’t anything to write home about but it’s good to have the full range of cables. The G-RAID mini weighs in at just under a 1 kg so it’s pretty hefty but this an all metal case – there’s no cheap plastic here. It’s also surprisingly small at only 149 x 83 x 38 mm, as you’ll see from the ruler below. Overall, it’s a solid, well-built unit.

G-RAID mini Front

Looking over the unit, round the back are a USB 3 port, two Firewire 800 ports and the DC in jack. On the underside, there’s a cooling fan and on the front, there’s white LED in the G-Technology logo, which flashes with disk access. There’s a hidden “drive failure” LED which goes red if a drive dies, but you’ll see the LED flicker when the mini powers up. The G-RAID mini needs supplementary power from the PSU when connected up via USB, but it’s not need when the Firewire ports are used.

G-RAID mini Rear

RAID ConfigThe G-RAID mini can be configured either as RAID 0 with both drives contributing to one large logical volume or else as RAID 1 with the drives mirroring each other. There’s a simple configuration tool that let’s you chose which it’s going to be. Changing the RAID level completely erases the drive so it’s best to decide early what configuration you want.

The utility is available for Windows and Mac, but once the G-RAID mini is setup, it works as any device that understands USB storage, e.g. Linux boxes or Chromebooks.

So that’s the basics out the way. What’s the performance like? I ran through my usual selection of tests with hdparm, dd and bonnie++ in both RAID 0 and RAID 1 configurations. Remember, while these tests are indicative of performance, they are for my setup only.

RAID 0 USB 3 USB 2 FW 400
hdparm (read)  155 MB/s  33 MB/s 39 MB/s
dd (write)  178 MB/s  37 MB/s 22 MB/s
bonnie++ (write)  173 MB/s  37 MB/s 21 MB/s
bonnie++ (read)  171 MB/s  49 MB/s 55 MB/s

 

RAID 1 USB 3 USB 2 FW 400
hdparm (read) 126 MB/s 32 MB/s 39 MB/s
dd (write) 117 MB/s 38 MB/s 21 MB/s
bonnie++ (write) 114 MB/s 37 MB/s 21 MB/s
bonnie++ (read) 154 MB/s 51 MB/s 53 MB/s

In either configuration, the G-RAID mini is fast, especially when connected up via USB 3 in RAID 0. Looking at the data, it’s clear that at USB2 and Firewire 400 speeds, there’s no performance difference between RAID 0 and RAID 1. Simplistically the data connection rate is the limiting factor.

However, with USB3 bonnie shows that write speeds fall by a third in the RAID 1 configuration, with reading affected by only a 10% fall. This is not unexpected as extra work is required to write the data in a mirror setup. Regardless, it’s still 3 times faster than USB2.

In summary, the G-RAID mini is an ideal companion for power users with the latest ultrabooks or MacBook Pros where performance is matched to good looks. It’s not cheap with an on-line price of around £275 for the 2 TB version but the protection against single drive failure will be important to those with high profile or travelling roles where having the data available is crucial. The G-RAID mini is an attractive and well-built unit with great performance and it will appeal to both those who need either high-performance or protection against drive failure.

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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Korus Portable Wireless Speakers

Korus LogoTodd and Don interview Nortek‘s Rob Halligan about the new wireless speaker system called Korus, which instead of using wifi or Bluetooth, uses SKAA, a wireless hi-fi audio standard that won CES Innovation awards in 2010 and 2011. The benefit of SKAA is low latency and greater range, but the downside is that it’s not built-in to any smartphone, tablet or media player. This is solved via a dongle, the Korus Baton, a SKAA transceiver which comes in USB, Apple Lightning and Apple 30 pin variants. Plug it in to the PC, Mac or Apple device and you are good to go. An Android version is expected later in the year.

Using SKAA rather than wifi or Bluetooth also means that there’s no faffing around with SSIDs or pairing with PINs; it’s simply a case of pressing a button on the wireless speaker and the speaker locks onto the nearest Baton. Press the button again and it moves onto the next.

Korus currently have two speaker units for sale, the V400 and V600, priced at a penny shy of US$350 and $450 respectively on the Korus shop at www.korussound.com.

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

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Apple Mac Pro Now Available – Is it Too Late?

Mac-Pro-2013Its the “little trash can that could”. The newest generation Mac Pro is finally available for those needing a powerhouse computer; yet many have switched to PCs earlier in the year because of performance issues. Will this new computer make up for it? Does Apple even care?

The new Mac Pro is available in 2, 4, 6, 8, and 12-core Intel Xeon processors. Initial configuration starts at $2,999 and can run up toward $9,600 with high end processor, memory, video and Flash hard drive. Additional Thunderbolt 2, USB 3.0 and dual Ethernet ports on back to expand to other devices, monitors and more. To put in comparison, this machine can perform up to 20x faster than the average machine you can get at Best Buy. This means video editors trying to create CAD designs, musical compositions, 4K TV or movies can work easier and get final cuts done faster.

But is it too late?

Earlier this year I talked with a company who made the switch from Mac to PC to edit video. They were concerned the last update was on June of 2012 and that even though the new Mac Pro is impressive, the company might be too slow to upgrade the machine. Especially with 8K video starting to knock on the door.

The Mac Pro is an innovative design that also helps keep the machine cooler and run quieter. It will definitely make PC manufacturers improve on future designs. Yet Apple’s strongest point is iPad and iPhone sales – putting the Mac Pro on a far back shelf.

UPDATE: Apple is now stating their initial Mac Pro purchases have been fulfilled and set a February timeframe if you order now. 

Mac Mini Upgrade

I have two Mac Mini’s — one of them I use as a computer, and the other I use as an over-the-air HD-DVR connected to my home theater.

I decided to upgrade the machine as I use as a computer to an SSD hard drive, replacing the stock 5400 RPM drive. I replaced it with a Crucial M500 240GB SATA 2.5-Inch 7mm (with 9.5mm adapter) Internal Solid State Drive CT240M500SSD1 purchased via Amazon for $159.99.

Dismantling a Mac Mini is quite a bit above my comfort level, so I took everything to a local Mac dealer I’ve had very positive dealings with in the past and paid them to make the swap.

The results are nothing short of phenomenal. Restarting the machine to fully back up takes about 29 seconds. Curiously, starting the computer from pressing the power button to fully up takes 24 seconds. This is much, much faster than boot-up sequence with the original 5400 RPM hard drive installed,

The machine has 8 gigabytes of RAM installed. Even with that much RAM, the overall feel of the computer once booted up is quite snappy comparing it directly to the otherwise identical HD-DVR machine that is still running it’s original 5400 RPM stock drive.

Hands down the best bang-for-the buck upgrade for any computer is an SSD drive. The speed boost is stark and will make a huge difference even on a machine with only 2 gigabytes of installed RAM.

If you have an older machine, particularly a laptop that has a decent processor but is in need of a serious speed bump, consider an SSD drive.

SSD prices are still high compared to conventional spinning drives, however I’ve found that simply adjusting my thinking a bit makes SSD drives much more affordable. A 120 gigabyte SSD drive sells for around $100 on Amazon. In an era of giant, inexpensive conventional external hard drives and ubiquitous home networks, it makes much more sense to use those external drives as shared storage to store photos, videos and other media, and get away from the idea of storing stuff on the computer itself. By using a 120 or 240 gigabyte SSD as the boot drive, it becomes possible to enjoy a massive computer speed boost and move media off to networked or external storage.

Bartender for the Mac

Below in the first photo you will see how my menu bar usually looks. As you can tell it is getting a little out of control. A lot of what is up there are applications that I use occasionally, and I want them in my menu bar. However I really don’t need to see them, including  default menu applications like the Airport icon, the eject button and the Time Machine indicator. I was looking for an application that could organize my menu items better and I found that application in Bartender. There is a four-week trial period for Bartender, but I suspect if you are like me you will buy it long before the four weeks are up. It cost $19.00 to license Bartender.

Once you install Bartender. It will show up with the preference open and all the apps that are in your menu bar on the left hand side of the box. On the right hand side of the box it will give you three options:

  • nothing Bartender doesn’t do anything (item remains in default menu bar)
  • show in Bartender bar, but not in menu bar
  • completely hide menu bar item

Now you can go through each of your menu items and decide where you want them. When you want to see an item that is in the Bartender bar you can either click on the Bartender icon or if you go into advance options under the Bartender preferences you can create a hot key. You can also create a hot key to show all menu bar items including hidden ones. The default icon for Bartenders is two dots, however you can change to icon by going Preferences and then General. There are some icons available, but you can also use your own image.

Bartender is one of those applications that does one thing and it does it well. It is not available through the Mac app store, you can download the application at the Bartender website. With the four-week trial there is no reason not to try it.

Barnes & Noble Retires Nook Apps for PC and Mac

Barnes & Noble logo Avid readers who have been enjoying the Nook app on their PC or Mac are in for some disappointment. According to The Digital Reader Barnes & Noble has officially ended its support for the Nook app for PC and the Nook app for Mac.

More specifically, this is in regards to the Nook for PC for Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows Vista. It also is in regards to at least some Mac versions of the app. The Digital Reader got an email from Barnes & Noble that suggests that people use Nook for Web instead (whether they are on a PC or Mac).

The eBook Reader notes that Nook for Web doesn’t allow you to save the book you are reading offline. You have to go online to access it. Another problem is that not all of the Nook books are available through Nook for Web. Some people are going to lose access to at least some of the Nook books that they had access to through the apps that have now disappeared.

Personally, I am an avid reader. I love to read and I have more books than I have shelf space for. I am one of the people who has a pile of books that I am dying to read… as soon as I get through the ones I bought before them. Despite my love of reading, I’ve never been interested in owning an eBook Reader. To me, paper books are a whole lot safer than digital ones. I won’t lose them if an app disappears.

Audio Evolution Mobile App

Audio Evolution Mobile 1.7.2 is a powerful multitrack audio recorder for Android that is somewhat reminiscent of Adobe Audition 1.5 in both form and function. Priced at $7.45 US, the app is a real bargain for anyone looking to do serious multitrack audio recording and editing on an Android tablet or smartphone.

Back a few years ago I switched from Windows to Mac, and Adobe Audition 1.5 is one of the pieces of software I had to let go of on a day-to-day basis in order to end the endless frustration of dealing with Windows. Newer versions of Adobe Audition have never struck me as having the same appeal of Adobe Audition 1.5.

It might be just me and the way I relate to software interfaces, but I’ve never had much use for Garageband on either the Mac or on my iPad. I was able to make use of Apple’s Soundtrack app, but it was just never as quick or as easy as Adobe Audition 1.5 was in quickly cranking out a tightly-edited piece of audio.

Audio Evolution Mobile 1.7.2 was easy for me to instantly make use of. The software maker suggests that you download the trial version to try on your particular Android hardware before you buy it, to make sure it will work for you. I downloaded the trial version onto my Galaxy S3 smartphone, and quickly determined that it would not only work but that I really liked the software and the way it worked. I uninstalled the trial version and purchased the full paid version and was able to crank out an hour-long edited recording quite easily with a minimum of confusion.

The software vendor makes it very clear that Audio Evolution Mobile 1.7.2 cannot directly output into the MP3 audio file format because of MP3 file format licensing issues. The app can output mixdown files to WAV, AIFF, FLAC or OGG file formats.

Of course the podcast file format standard is MP3, so in order to be able to convert the mixdown files to the MP3 file format, I downloaded the free MediaConverter app that converts files using the open-source FFMPEG libraries from many different file formats to MP3.

To add ID3 tags to the converted MP3 files, I installed the free MP3dit app that is able to edit ID3 tags for many different audio file formats.

To upload the MP3 file to my podcast server, I use the free ANDftp FTP client for Android.

Finally, to make the WordPress post I simply go to a browser such as Firefox for Android to the regular full browser view, log in and make the post as I would on a regular desktop or laptop computer.

To be honest, the last step is the hardest to accomplish on a tablet device. WordPress just isn’t laid out in a very touchscreen-friendly manner, but it can be made to work in a pinch.

From a podcaster standpoint, the mobile device recording, editing and posting software is slowly getting there.