Varta Wireless Charger at Gadget Show Live

VartaVartaOne of the biggest brands in portable power, Varta’s range goes from watch cells to car batteries. As well as the all-too-familiar AAs, Varta has a pile of products for the power hungry smartphone and tablet user. With the increasing popularity of wireless charging, it’s not unsurprising that Varta is bringing a Qi charger to market. Unlike many of the puck-style charging pads, the new Varta wireless charger is rectangular making it easier to place the phone and keep it in the sweet spot. Expected to arrive later in the year, the charger will priced a little over £30.

I talk to Natalie from Varta at Gadget Show Live to learn more.

Google Launches Mobile Carrier Project Fi for Nexus 6

Google has joined the ranks of AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile with their new mobile carrier service, Project Fi. Project Fi, which is exclusive to owners of Google’s Nexus 6 smartphone, offers a completely new take on wireless plans.

project fiMost carriers charge a flat rate for a specific amount of data, even when you don’t use it all, but Project Fi only charges you for the data you actually use and reimburses you for what you don’t. For example, if you spend $20 on a 2GB monthly plan but only use 1GB, Google will refund you $10. If you only use 0.5GB, you’ll get $15 and so on.

Project Fi is available in over 120 countries (with no roaming charges– yay!) and offers unlimited talk and text, personal hotspot usage, Google Voice integration, and unlimited international texting for a flat rate of $20 per month; you can add a data plan for $10/GB per month as well.

In addition, Project Fi lets you connect to both Sprint and T-Mobile’s 3G and 4G LTE networks, so if your T-Mobile signal starts to lag and Sprint has a faster signal available, Project Fi will automatically switch over to Sprint so you’ll always have the fastest possible connection. And if no cell networks are available, Project Fi lets you connect to more than 1 million free open-access WiFi hotspots, automatically encrypting your data so you can have fast, secure online access wherever you are.

Project Fi is currently in its early-access stage and only available for the Nexus 6, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see support for other smartphones coming soon, and perhaps a partnership with AT&T or Verizon, too.

Until then, you can get all the details and request an invitation here.

Sprint brings Free Wi-Fi Calling to iPhone

Sprint logoWhen I got my first cell phone in 1995, I opted for a plan that included a whopping 60 minutes of monthly airtime. Back then, cell phones were still looked at as “emergency contact devices” by most people. But much has changed in the last two decades. Today, cell phones are ubiquitous and there’s an expectation that we can use them wherever we go. And for the most part, this is true. However, there are still some challenges when it comes to finding a cellular signal, and smaller carriers such as Sprint and T-Mobile have had to adapt their coverage systems to fill in the gaps where their towers can’t reach.

Wi-Fi calling has been a regular feature on most T-Mobile handsets for years. This service allows customers to make standard voice calls over Wi-Fi when the cellular network is out of range. And now, Sprint is bringing a similar service to its iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 5c and iPhone 5s-wielding customers. Over the next week, Sprint’s iPhone customers will receive a software update that allows them to initiate high-quality voice calls over Wi-Fi. This enhances and expands Sprint’s coverage and connectivity options. The service is as easy to use as Bluetooth – there is a simple setting to turn it on and off. Calls made over Wi-Fi won’t have any impact on a user’s voice or data plan, making those calls virtually free.

Sprint customers will now be able to take advantage of millions of Wi-Fi networks to talk and use data even when cellular coverage may be limited. This will definitely make a difference in office buildings and other places with cellular network challenges. Customers traveling internationally can also use Wi-Fi calling to enjoy free calls from over 200 countries back to the U.S.

When I recently got back into the cell phone game with an iPhone 6 Plus, I didn’t even consider Sprint as an option, mainly due to the company’s lack of overall coverage. Upgrades like this will definitely make the carrier more attractive in the future.

Pocket-Sized Big Screen TV

Lumex_Picomax_SmartpodPocket-Wouldn’t it be cool if you could carry around a big screen smart TV in your pocket?

Actually, that is now possible.

I recently purchased a Lumex Picomax Smartpod pocket pico projector via Amazon.Com. A pico projector is a miniature pocket-sized projector that typically has a built-in battery that can also be operated off of AC household current. Pico projectors can produce surprisingly bright, crisp projected images and traditionally have been handy for people who are traveling and need to give presentations.

What sets apart a “smart” projector from a regular projector is the same things that set a smartphone apart from a feature phone, or a smart TV apart from a regular TV. Smart projectors include not only connectivity such as WiFi and Bluetooth but also come with a built-in operating system such as Android that includes access to the Google Play Store. With the Google Play Store comes video streaming apps such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime Videos, YouTube, etc., etc.

 

Projected_80_inch_imageThis is a picture of a streaming movie projected onto an 80 inch screen in a darkened room. The photo was taken from about 25 to 30 feet from the projection screen.

I drive a truck over-the-road, so with the Lumex Picomax Spartpod projector I can easily connect it to my MiFi hotspot and project a 45 to 50 inch screen onto a blank wall area of my truck’s sleeper. I connect the projector to a high-quality Bluetooth speaker for excellent stereo sound. Watching a 45 to 50 inch image is a much nicer experience than watching the same material on a much smaller iPad Air screen. It also has the added advantage of extreme portability so I can easily carry it with me and use it in a motel room.

The projector is about the size of a Roku or Apple TV box. It also has a variety of other built-in connectors, such as mini HDMI, VGA, Micro SD Card and standard 4 pin USB port. It uses Texas Instruments DLP chip and the light source is a 20,000 hour LED lamp. The projector comes with a small remote control, and also has a touchpad built-in to the top of the unit itself.

The unit will run about an hour and a half to two hours on the built-in battery. It outputs a 70 lumens when running on battery power and automatically jumps up to 100 lumens when connected to the included AC adapter.

It produces a bright, colorful image. The native resolution is 800 x 480, so it is not 720p, but 480p widescreen.

The WiFi and Bluetooth connect and stream flawlessly.at the same time. While the integrated touchpad mouse works okay, I prefer to use a wireless three button mouse. I plug the mouse dongle into the standard USB port on the side of the unit and the mouse instantly connects. With this configuration along with a wireless keyboard it could easily be used as a computer. There is a small integrated fan that runs when the unit is running in order to keep things cool internally. The fan is actually very quiet and doesn’t produce much fan noise at all.

I do have a few criticisms of the unit. First, the manual focus seems a bit sloppy. It is easy to rotate the knob past the optimum focus. When rotating back the knob will rotate freely about half a turn before it starts moving the focus back in the opposite direction, making it difficult to zone in back and forth to obtain the maximum sharpness.

Also, the integrated touchpad does not include mouse buttons like an actual mouse does. It is possible to scroll vertically running your finger along the black vertical dotted line along the edge of the touchpad, but it takes a bit of getting used to. A wireless mouse makes for a much more fluid and satisfying experience.

The tiny integrated speaker doesn’t produce much sound, so it is close to being useless. I strongly suggest using a wired speaker or a Bluetooth speaker for an adequate sound experience. Stereo headphones or ear buds can also be used.

Despite my criticisms I am quite happy with my purchase. The Lumex Picomax Smartpod WiFi projector currently sells for $399.97 on Amazon. It really is like being able to carry around a big-screen smart TV in my pocket.

Wi-Fi Alliance Looks To The Future at CES

WiFi Alliance Logo

The 10 billionth Wi-Fi-certified device will be shipping around now. That’s impressive considering that Wi-Fi is still young, going back only 15 years. I remember 802.11b and my first Wi-Fi PCI card which had an antenna the size of a pack of playing cards. Those were the days. Anyway, Don Blaine, the Gadget Professor, gets a little more up-to-date with Edgar Figueroa, President and CEO of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Expected this year is new feature called Wi-Fi Aware which gathers information from the surrounding environment and pushes it to the user (subject to preferences). For example, when in a supermarket, a message might pop up to show the shortest check-out queue or special offers. If combined with the Internet of Things, other clever things can happen such as a garage door sending a message indicating that it’s been open for two hours, or turning the water off if a leak is detected. Sounds like a great technology to make life easier and safer for everyone.

Interview by Don Baine, the Gadget Professor.

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Celestron NexStar Evolution at CES

celestronA few years ago I was lucky enough to visit Kitt Peak in Arizona for an astronomy night and it will be one of the highlights of my life. It was a revelationary moment when I looked up and saw the Milky Way properly for the first time; I was used to seeing a few bright stars with a few more during the cold winter. Nothing prepared me for millions of dots spread across the sky…the stars, like dust…  Jamie and Todd explore the cosmos with Bryan Cogdell from telescope manufacturer Celestron.

At the interview table is the Celestron NexStar Evolution, a portable computerised wifi-operated telescope with built-in rechargeable battery. The telescope itself is a Schmidt-Cassegrain optical tube which can be controlled wirelessly from a tablet (or smartphone) using the Celestron SkyPortal app for both iOS and Android. It’s very easy to use; simply find the celestial body of interest in the app and then the telescope will orient itself to view the galaxy, star or planet of interest. The battery lasts around 10 hours so there’s a whole night of viewing without recharging.

The NexStar Evolution is available now in three variants with 6″, 8″ and 9.25″ mirrors at around $1300, $1600 and $2200 respectively.

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

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IC Real Tech Allie Camera at CES

IC Real Tech logoWeb and IP cams are ten a penny these days, but the IC Real Tech Allie takes expectations to a whole new level with a near 720 degree field of view and the ability to stop time. Todd gets a demo from Matt on how the Allie Pro can see everything.

The Allie Pro is an IP cam with two lenses, one on the front and one on the back, that have overlapping fields of view. As result, when viewed in real-time on a tablet or smartphone, the image can be panned round in nearly 720 degrees; left-to-right, up-and-down with no blindspots. The complementary apps on both iOS and Android can either use touch or the motion sensors to move round the image. Live video is fed through but if something catches the eye, the video can be paused and the frozen image explored in more detail.

There are three models in the range, Allie Play, Home and Pro, with increasing levels of video resolution and prices to match at $399, $599 and approx $1100 for the Pro. All available in late Q1.

These cameras are awesome and I can see tremendous potential for pseudo-telepresence, perhaps combined with a simple VR setup like Google Cardboard. Turn your head, turn the view. And think of a head-mounted action cam version! Watch the video – you’ll be impressed.

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

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Kelvin Wireless Wine Thermometer at CES

Kelvin LogoWatching the video for the Kelvin Duo wireless wine thermometer put me in mind for a glass, so as I write this, I’ve a tasty little Sicilian red to hand. But how do I know that I’m getting the best from the wine? Let the wine breathe – check. Wide glass – check. Temperature….hmm, not so sure about that…and that’s where the Kelvin thermometer comes to the rescue.

The Kelvin Duo consists of a thermometer band that goes round the bottle, transmitting the temperature to a receiver which in turn shows the temp on a small screen. The screen’s backlight is colour-coded to red, green and blue for too warm, just right and too cold.  The Kelvin is straightforward to use: first choose your wine, second select the category of wine from a choice of ten (four for white, three for red, two for sparkling and one for rosé), next put the band on the bottle and the bottle in the fridge. Finally, wait for the receiver screen to get into the green (or just flick into the blue) then pour and enjoy!

The Kelvin Duo is already on sale in the UK for £39.99 and will be coming to the US in the coming months with a price somewhere around $70-$80.

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

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Boingo Builds SMART Wireless Networks

boingo logoMany of us will be familiar with Boingo from their public wifi hotspots in airports and coffee houses, though the company provides many more radio-based services to advertisers, sporting arenas and the military. Marlo finds out more about Boingo Wireless and their plans from Dr Derek Peterson, Chief Technology Officer.

When build large-scale wireless networks, it’s not simply a case of putting up more and more access points – it’s far more complex than that with competing needs from the users. Boingo considers each implementation as a “SMART” network, their acronym for Secure, Multiple devices and models, Analytics, Responsiveness and Tiered services. With these aspects in mind, the appropriate design, technologies and policies can be put in place. Watch the video to learn more about Boingo’s approach and the current trends in the wireless market.

Interview by Marlo Anderson of The Tech Ranch. Note that Marlo’s audio is missing for the first few questions.

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Archos Smart Home Review

Archos LogoThese days it’s either i-this or smart-that with new gadgets measuring and changing our personal environment. From Fitbit to Philips Hue, the internet of things is steadily growing and into this increasingly connected world, French firm Archos have stepped in. Their Smart Home tablet wirelessly connects sensors to a central hub that monitors and initiates actions based on conditions. Archos kindly lent me a Smart Home to raise the IQ of my house. Let’s take a look.

Archos Smart Home Box

In the box there’s the Smart Home tablet, plus six connected objects; two mini-cams, two movement tags and two weather tags. The tablet itself looks much like a digital photo frame but it’s actually a small 7″ device running Android 4.2.

Archos Smart Home Front View

Archos Smart Home Rear View

In the looks department, the Smart Home tablet fits the bill with styling that wouldn’t look out of place in a living room. It is all plastic, including the screen which seems to be acrylic rather than glass, but perhaps will better withstand being knocked. Some thought has been given to the design as the screen’s viewing angle appears to be have been adjusted slightly so that screen looks good when someone looks down at it, rather than straight on. There’s only about 2.5 GB of free memory on-board but there is a microSD card slot to boost the Smart Home’s capacity. Performance-wise, it’s no speed demon with a 1.2 GHz ARM processor, but as most of the time the Smart Home just sits there receiving data, it’s a not a big deal. A camera and a thermometer are built into the tablet too and these can be used to take pictures and measure the temperatureas well as the connected objects.

The connected objects are shown below with the mini-cam, weather tag and movement tag from left to right. All have sticky pads which allow adhesion to flat surfaces round the house. The mini-cam ball is held in the foot by magnets and it means the ball can oriented in almost any direction. The weather tag measures temperature and humidity, and the movement tag can measure both motion and door opening / closing.

Archos Smart Home Sensors

Getting setup is easy and straightforward. Running the Archos Smart Home software initially asks for the different rooms where devices are located.

Smart Home Rooms

Once the rooms are setup, the connected objects can be added into the relevant room. The objects use Bluetooth rather than Zigbee and pairing is simply a case of holding down a button on the connected object for 5 seconds. It worked flawlessly. The pairing screen shows all the objects available, not only the ones in the box.

Accessories

Once all setup, the Smart Home tablet presents a view with the room and all the objects in the room.

Hall

In the Hall, I had two mini-cams, a weather tag and a movement tag. Tapping on any device in the app then gives more data or information – here’s the weather tag showing data over the past week for both temperature and humidity.

Temperature and Humidity

Great but how do we get from monitoring the weather to doing something smart? Archos have the answer by building simple “if this, do that” programs. For example, if temperature falls below two degrees Celsius, email to me “It might be slippy.” Or more usefully, if the door opens, take a picture and send an email – like this.

Program

Sure enough, when the front door is opened, I get an email (my personal email is address is obscured by the black box).

Mail

 

The mini-cam also takes a picture (or a short video) but they won’t show a live feed, presumably because Bluetooth can’t transfer the data very quickly. You’ll notice one of the slight problems….the Smart Home doesn’t really take pictures fast enough as in many of the photos the person who opened the door has already moved out of shot. These are all real life photos, nothing was staged. A mini-cam positioned further down the hall generally did better at getting people entering the property.

Minicam Pictures

Out of the box, there’s a fairly limited range of actions such as send email, turn on plug and so on, but Smart Home can use the Tasker app to do more. Tasker supports a wide range of actions, including starting other apps, which makes it quite a powerful solution. However, even this simple email-me-on-the-front-door-opening is useful when wanting to know if someone has arrived home safely (or a thief has broken into your house!)

Other nifty features are that the Smart Home can be accessed from other tablets or smartphones. After a straightforward authorisation process, the system can be viewed from other devices both inside and outside the house. Here’s what it looks like on my smartphone.

Smartphone View

Overall, the Smart Home worked well, mostly sitting on the table doing its job. I did find that I mostly used my ordinary tablet (a Nexus 7)  to work with the Smart Home rather than picking up the unit itself. I set the Smart Home tablet up as a digital photo frame using the standard Android Daydream screensaver to fit into the room.

There were a couple of problems, the first being the range and penetration of Bluetooth. I live in a modest house with brick walls which meant that the weather tag at the rear of the property couldn’t be picked up if the Smart Home tablet was in the front room. Secondly, battery life – the mini-cams seemed get through a set of batteries in about a fortnight and each one took three CR2450 button cells. The movement and weather tags weren’t quite so bad – perhaps a month and only one battery. As an aside there’s no way of muting the low battery warnings that appear in orange on the screen. A connected object could be disconnected but that deleted the historical date at the same time.

Bizarrely, the other problem was how I felt about spying on my family, which is not anything to do with the Archos Smart Home, so I’ll save that for another post. I can see the Smart Home working for families with children that come home when the parents are still at work and the email notifications would give any parent a measure of comfort that their son or daughter is home safe.

The Smart Home costs GB£199 from Archos’ online store. Other additional connected objects are “coming soon”, including an HD weatherproof camera and a siren tag. In summary, the Smart Home is a well integrated system that has room for expansion with more types of connected objects but watch out for the limitations of Bluetooth range and battery life.

Thanks to Archos for the loan of the Smart Home.