November 2017 - Gadget Guy MN
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Archive for month: November, 2017

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Testing digital voice assistants at home

This post was originally published in the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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Personal digital voice assistants are becoming quite popular. They allow you to use voice search for queries and control connected items in your home

According to a Google study “more than half of teens (13-18) use voice search daily — to them it’s as natural as checking social media or taking selfies. Adults are also getting the hang of it, with 41 percent talking to their phones every day and 56 percent admitting it makes them ‘feel tech savvy.’”

Last month, Verizon Wireless sent me a Google Home digital assistant to test out. My goal was to try it against my Amazon Echo (first generation) — or “Alexa,” as it is referred to — and see how each does as a digital assistant. At this point, digital assistants have become quite popular and common; personally, I have three variations of the Echo in my house, one on each level of my two-story home and one in the kitchen.

The Google Home and Amazon Echo are really pretty similar. Both can control lights and other smart switches. Both can answer questions and set timers. Both have their own personalities with jokes and silly responses to questions like, “What is your favorite movie?” Both can provide the weather forecast and play music. Both have female voices as well.

One area that Google Home stands out for me is in its ability to connect to Google Play Music. As a subscriber, I can then play my playlists and subscription music.

Amazon has its own subscription service, but I have not subscribed to it, as Amazon Prime still provides users with a lot of included music. I have a playlist built out of that, but you have to pay more for the full catalogue of Amazon Prime Music, just as you have to for Google Play Music, but Google Play Music is not even available on the Echo.

Both assistants can tell me my calendar schedule — which is through Google Calendar — but, surprisingly, the Echo provides more detail and can read other calendars that are linked to mine, like my work calendar. Both the Echo and Home can recognize multiple voices and provide calendar information for multiple users, a feature that I did not try out.

The biggest area in which I saw a difference is what Amazon calls “far-field communication”, which is the ability to hear someone across a room. The Echo did much better than the Home hearing me ask for “lights on” and turning off the air conditioner while it was running.

The Home, being built on Google’s search engine, does a better job answering questions, while the Echo sometimes just doesn’t understand the question.

I tried making calls on both devices. You can use both devices as a speakerphone for your mobile phone calls when initiated through either the Home or Echo. They were pretty similar, but I did get better call quality from the Echo when I was further away; again, probably due to the microphones they use for far-field communication.

The two are very similar, and knowing how to use one makes it easy to jump right into using the other.

Voice control has become such an easy way in our house, via our Echos, to turn on and off lights, set timers, add to our grocery lists, play music and check weather forecasts. The ability to turn on lights helps my young kids turn on floor lamps that they wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise. Plus, my kids like to have Alexa tell them jokes, read stories and play music.

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Paul Burnstein is a tech handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

home technology help

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Playing with possibilities

This post was originally published in the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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This past month, Verizon Wireless sent me a fun phone to try out: the Motorola Z2 Play.

Overall, it is a nice phone to play around with. The phone itself is an upper mid-range phone, but the range of possibilities it offers is the fun part.

Let me explain. The phone’s functionality is all around solid. In my use, it was speedy, lightweight, had great battery life of more than a day and had a very nice looking display. But my primary focus in testing the device was not really based on the phone functionality itself. Rather, I was in it for the Moto Mods (think modifications). This is where the fun part comes in.

I got to try out three of the different mods: a speaker, camera and projector. The mods attach via magnet and easily snap on or off. Other available mods include a gamepad, extra battery, 360-degree camera and more.

The mod for the speaker was the Soundboost ($79.99) made by JBL. Once attached, the speaker mod made the phone quite a bit chunkier, but it was better than carrying around a separate bluetooth speaker. It has a kickstand, and when in use it adds a nice full sound to the music being played.

Using the mod over a standalone bluetooth speaker is a slight convenience — one less thing to carry with you — but I didn’t find myself taking the speaker mod out of the house, even, as I was not listening to music through a speaker on the go.

The camera mod was the Hasselblad 4116 True Zoom ($199.99). Hasselblad is a well respected camera company founded in 1841. Once you click on the mod, it transforms the phone into a digital camera with an expanding lens and dedicated zoom and shutter buttons.

A very nice feature is the 10x optical zoom. It provides much more clarity than a digital zoom, which is just software creating the zoom feature. The optical zoom is just like using a zoom lens on a film camera.

The pictures I took looked great when I saw the quick preview that pops up onscreen immediately after taking the picture, but when I looked at them later on the phone they did not have the vibrancy that I had seen before. This could be due to screen calibration and the fact that I viewed them later on a different device.

My favorite of the mods that I tried out was the Moto Insta-Share Projector ($299.99). Wow! This is a fun mod that allows one to project anything from the Moto Z2 Play screen (or other compatible Moto phone).

I tried it out on my ceiling and it looked great. I also took it camping and projected Moana on the side of an RV so the kids could enjoy a movie. (I am the Gadget Guy; of course I enjoy camping with technology!) The only complaint I had was that the sound was not robust enough for us to hear the soudtrack by the campfire. You can only attach one mod at a time, so the speaker mod could not remedy this.

In the future, I would know to bring a bluetooth speaker for the audio to work with the projector. The projector mod also has a built-in battery, so it extends the life of the smartphone battery while projecting.

My favorite thing to do with the projector was lay in bed and watch on my angled ceiling. It projects up to 70 inches and looks crisp with deep colors. My wife and I have avoided a TV in our bedroom, but on nights when we are exhausted (with young kids, that’s every night), it is a nice option to lay in bed and stream Netflix.

The projector is a must-have if you get the phone, but the mods only work with the Moto Z line. If you want flagship phones by Apple (iPhones) or Samsung (their latest being the Galaxy S8 and Note 8), you are out of luck using the mods.

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Paul Burnstein is a Tech Handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

home technology help