Sunday, July 28, 2013

Book Review: Talking to Siri Learning the Language of Apple's Intelligent Assistant (2nd Edition)

Like many iPhone users, Siri was cool at the beginning but I quickly got bored with her and couldn’t really figure out how best to utilize this tool--until I read this book.

Siri is all about asking the right questions and phrasing your requests properly and this book shows you how.  This isn’t about silly games such as “Open the pod bay doors” but powerful syntax to utilize all the functions available to you.

Each chapter examines a different area in which Siri can help you ending up with a quick reference card of the commands.  Until I read this book I barely used Siri, now I can’t live without her!  Some of the tips included in the book is to be sure to use nicknames and create relationships so you can say advanced phrases like “Remind me when I get to the grocery store to buy milk” or “Tell me a gas station on my current route”--complex commands that would take much longer if you had to do them by hand.

If you’ve got Siri on your phone or iPad, get this book!

Five out of Five

Article was republished by the Lawrence Apple User's Group 2.0 here as well as other groups listed on the right.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Book Review: Cooking for Geeks

Although I am a geek, I’m not a scientist and this book was really geared more towards chemistry majors as much of it went above my head.  That being said, what I did understand was fascinating.  If you like Alton Brown you’ll love this book because it takes that scientific approach to cooking to the next level.

Presented like a computer manual, each chapter examines a function of cooking such as the hardware, software, variables and methods involved.  In these chapters celebrities and food luminaries are interviewed for their unique perspective on the subject and recipes demonstrating the concepts are also included.  

The book is densely packed with information and if you understand college chemistry and physics you’ll get much more out of this book then I did because I struggled remembering the details of chemical bonds and Kelvin.  Even with those limits, I still struggled with the onslaught of information explaining different tasting patterns and flavor combinations and had to read some chapters more than once.  This isn’t  light fluffy reading but it’s really worth it in the end.  

After this book I was much more empowered to experiment with my cooking and cooking methods and understand why I like certain foods, combinations and cooking methods and why I dislike others.  This is the science behind the art of cooking.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Hardware Review: Jawbone UP

The Jawbone UP is Jawbone’s answer to the popular Fitbit fitness monitoring product line.  This water-resistant product is worn around your wrist and will track not just your steps but your sleep as well.  With a variety of colors and sizes this is not only a fitness monitoring tool but a great accessory for you and your iPhone.  The 10-day battery means you don’t have to take it off to charge very often.

The UP measures yours steps throughout the day though has a problem with movement that doesn’t involve the wrist such as biking or an elliptical machine.  You can add those movements manually to the app or put the device in your pocket.  Although it’s water resistant, Jawbone advises against wearing it while swimming or in a long hot shower because long term water contact can cause problems.  My first one had a problem potentially with overflexing the band to fit on my ankle and I was warned the electronics are throughout the whole band and can be damaged.

The UP also measures your sleep quality and will let you take a power nap or set vibrating alarm and be woken up in an optimal time so you aren’t in the middle of a deep sleep and are jarred awake.  This is a great feature for those who have trouble getting up in the morning, although I didn’t notice much of a difference but to be fair I’ve tried other products like this without much success as well.

The way you read the data is through the iOS app and you must plug the device into the headphone jack to get a full read.  It does not sync via Bluetooth or a computer:  a smartphone (though not an iPhone) is required to analyze the data.  Fortunately syncing only take a few seconds so it’s not a big deal.

The food tracking capability of the iPhone app is amazing.  Not only does it have an extensive database of foods but it also allows you track food via scanning bar codes or taking pictures.  No excuses for not watching what you eat.

With all this data of how you move, what you eat and how you sleep, the app offers insights and observations to improve your health and lets you analyze this data on your own to see trends how lack of sleep might cause you to overeat or not exercise enough.  Impressive information for those trying to improve their health.

Built into the app is a team function in which you can work with others to compare fitness goals.  Personally I couldn’t find any friends using the Jawbone UP to compete with (although I had dozens of friends using the Fitbit).  Similar to many technology products, it’s about an installed base.  Fitbit got to the market first with the products and have a large group of users who continue the momentum of the product.  Tides easily turn. so it’s unclear who will win this war.  If competing with others is important to you, be sure other friends have an UP first.

Overall a great product with impressive features to empower you to take control of your health

PROS:  Long battery, wears around the wrist and water resistant
CONS:  A bit delicate, lack of installed base

Four out of Five

Hardware Review: Fitbit Flex

The Flex is the latest fitness monitoring product from Fitbit with a interchangeable wrist strap as well as water resistant electronics than may be worn in the shower or anywhere with brief contact with water.  These features, however come at a price of reduced functionality compared with the One or Ultra and is more like the lower end Fitbit Zip.

The Flex uses the same iOS App and dashboard as the other Fitbit products and can be synced via a USB dongle or directly to your Bluetooth 4.0 iPhone or iPad but does not have a digital display.  To see the actual steps you’ve taken for the day, you’ll need to use the app or view your progress on the Fitbit website.  A series of 5 dots on the Flex tells you how far you’ve made progress towards your goal throughout the day (Five solid dots indicate you’ve met your goal).  Without that display you also lose the stopwatch function, which was a very important part of my workouts.

The Flex does not measure stairs, unlike the Ultra or One, but does measure sleep and provides a vibrating wake up alarm and sleep quality monitoring.  It seems to sit slightly above the Zip but slightly below the One in the product line (though pricing is the same as the One).  Also because you wear it on your wrist, it didn’t register movement on an elliptical trainer, but when I put it in my pocket it worked fine.

All Fitbits feature the ability to compete with your friends to get in a certain number of steps each day regardless of which Fitbit product they have.  If you are motivated by gamification, this is the product to help with your fitness goals.  Fitbits also include a basic food diary for tracking calories, but the third party API’s help extend this feature such as through the Lose It app. The device charges via a USB dongle (but not the same one that enables syncing)

I’ll admit I was first very disappointed with the Flex’s inability to provide immediate readout and track stairs, but I gave up my obsession with knowing the exact number of steps and became satisfied accepting the simple progress bar on the device.  Not having to worry about my Fitbit going through the washing machine and leaving it at home is a strong selling point even with a lack of features.  As I wore it, others noticed and I was able to increase the number of people I competed with in the program.

A solid and reliable addition to the Fitbit product line to motivate you to stay fit.

Pros:  Wear it on your wrist and not worry about water damage or loss, competition among friends
Cons:  Doesn’t track elliptical motion, lack of digital readout

Article was republished by the Lawrence Apple User's Group 2.0 here as well as other groups listed on the right.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Book Review: Jailbreak!: Free your iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch

Jailbreaking is one of the more confusing aspects of using an iPhone and this book explains every aspect of jailbreaking:  risks, rewards and caveats in a clear and easy to understand format for even the non-technical people who would never dream of jailbreaking.

First, the author makes clear the distinction between the relatively low risk jailbreaking and the high-risk unlocking.  Jailbreaking is a software modification to your phone that allows you to make changes to the iOS and is legal at least until 2015 in the US.  

Due to the previously questionable legal status of jailbreaking and the risks involved, few of the traditional companies have come out with books on the subject.  That’s a shame because when done properly, jailbreaking is safe and legal and can be quite useful for those who need a bit more features on their iPhone rather than what Apple has to offer.

After explaining what jailbreaking is and why you might do it, the author explains exactly the process of how to do it making sure you can return to factory spec status if necessary. The explanation is detailed although only Mac instructions are included.  Windows users won’t find the same handholding Mac users get in this book.

With your newly jailbroken phone, the next set of chapters introduces the App Store of jailbreakers:  Cydia.  Once you realize that Cydia isn’t some seedy pirate site but a legitimate way to buy apps, it’s really amazing everything that’s out there.  Sure, there are some, pardon the pun, bad Apples out there and the buyer should beware and be aware, ratings and research will keep you safe and the author gives some good guidelines on staying away from problem apps.

Finally, armed with a jailbroken phone and a Cydia account, the world is your oyster for tweaks, modifications, and enhancements of your iOS device.  Fun stuff like themes and visual effects to more practical items such as home screen shortcuts and ways to sweep up your iPhone and increase your battery life.  Awesome functionality that Apple frequently includes in the next versions of iOS.  Want iOS 7 functionality now?  Much of it is already available to jailbroken phones.

Most of all this book gives the reader confidence to give it a go realizing they won’t damage their phone, void their warranty or go to jail and, if they don’t like it, they can easily revert back to a stock version.  Don’t pay some questionable tech from Craigslist to jailbreak your iPhone:  do it yourself!.

Pros:  Great explanation of the features and the slight risks of jailbreaking
Cons:  Could use better instructions for those on Windows.