Friday, January 30, 2015

Novel portable keyboard

One of the advantages of the old Blackberries was that they had a physical keyboard – while I find “swyping” to be more effective than those tiny keys, I still prefer touch typing and often use a Bluetooth wireless keyboard with my iPad. But the keyboard is big and a hassle to carry around.

Here’s an option from that they call TextBlade. It’s portable – it folds up into a rectangular carrying configuration about 4” x 1” x ½”. It has full sized keys (see below) and uses the same QWERTY keyboard layout as most (American) keyboards but, when deployed, it's thinner than an iPhone 6.

The keys have multi-touch capabilities, so that the designers could get multiple characters on each key to keep it small. I think this might take some getting used to, but the fact that it’s spaced like a traditional keyboard might mitigate this issue.

The battery is contained in the spacebar module everything snaps together magnetically. The charge lasts about a month on a one hour charge and the it works with any smartphone or tablet that supports Bluetooth 4 (BLE - most newer phones have this.)

Looks like they’ll be available in February and the company is now taking preorders for $99 – a bit pricey, but it looks really effective.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Cheap Microsoft/Nokia phone

Microsoft just announced the cheapest way to connect to the internet. 

At $30, the Nokia 215 can run apps like Facebook, Twitter, MSN Weather, Opera, etc. It won't be the fastest phone, as it only supports 2G networks. Also, it may not be the sharpest display (at QVGA 320 X 240) but it could be a great phone for emerging markets, competing with the more capable, but more expensive Xiaomi low-end smartphones. 

It offers a low-res (0.3-megapixel camera), built-in flashlight, MP3 and FM radio along with Bluetooth, dual-SIM – and it has a 29 day standby battery life. 

Should be available some time in the first quarter in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe (no plans to launch in the US.) 

If any of my friends in Europe get one of these, please let me know what you think of it!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Windows 10 - surprisingly good...

First a caveat: Windows 10 is not even a product yet and won't be until sometime "later this year." If you're a Mac or Linux user, you might want to skip this altogether... But if you're interested in what looks to be the first usable version of Windows since 7, read on.

I loaded Windows 10 Preview on one of the laptops at work this week and made it available for people to play with. I can't vouch for its stability - though some bits may be a little flaky, most of it seems to work. This is just a technical preview, so don't be surprised if these comments are quickly rendered out of date as the updates are released and later when the Consumer Preview comes out.

Here are a few of the features I thought were cool:

• The Desktop is back and the kludgy "modern" UI relegated to the start menu.
• The start menu has all your software including tiles for your modern apps (or not, if you prefer)
• Modern apps can be dragged and re-sized at will
• Task View shows you all the apps and windows you have open
• Virtual desktop - this is a cool feature I haven't had a chance to play with yet
• "Tablet mode" makes it a little more like the current Windows 8.1 environment
• The Siri-like Cortana assistant is now available, but I think it may be a while before it's really useful.

I've only spent a few minutes with Windows 10 but, so far, it looks good - much better than 8/8.1. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Handy (but expensive) charger

CES was just packed with mobile device peripherals, cases, chargers, etc. - lots of fashion/lifestyle centric add-ons. Honestly, I think 1/4 of one of the halls was just smartphone cases.

Hidden among these were also some other gems, like the Zolt MacBook/smartphone/tablet charger.

One of the problems with the MacBook charger is that it's huge. Another is that it uses a proprietary connector and can't be used for anything else. It's also rather heavy.

The Zolt, shown at this year's CES, is a tiny (3" X 1.3" X 1.3") charger that has 3 USB slots. For $130 ($100 for the charger, $30 more for the MacBook cable) it will power your MacBook Air (not the 15", 17" or Retina MacBooks) up to 70 watts. It will also charge your phone and tablet.

They're available this spring, but they're offering them now at $79 for pre-order.

The Zolt is similar to the new Dart charger - which is really designed more for the typical laptop rather than a Mac (the Mac version is $80 more!) - but it doesn't have USB slots for charging other devices.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Wireless power

Wireless power has been a dream since the days of Nicola Tesla and it looks like it’s finally making some interesting progress.

I’m sure you’ve seen the devices that allow you to put a smartphone on a “charging surface” to charge it "wirelessly". This is handy, but it’s really not what we mean when we say wireless power.

A company called Energous demoed a new system called WattUp at CES this year that purports to be able to deliver power to devices anywhere in a room (up to 15 feet away.) It uses Bluetooth and focused radio frequency beams (using the same frequencies as WiFi) that the powered devices convert to power using an embedded chip. The “transmitter” triangulates the locations of devices using Bluetooth and uses beam-forming antenna technology to send the energy to them.

The transmitters could be built into a number of different devices (appliances, routers, etc.) They’re currently about 70% efficient at charging (typical wireless charging pads are about 90% efficient.)

Devices can be charged on the fly while users are using them walking around the room – using technology similar to how WiFi routers hand off signals when you move between access points in the office.

Currently the smartphones that are being charged need special power-receiver cases, but the technology can be embedded in the phones as well – if the smartphone manufacturers get on board.

If the distance could be increased, this might be useful for powering devices in out of the way or difficult to reach locations in a plant. It could also be used for wireless toys, tablets, speakers and other devices besides phones. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Windows 10 news

If Microsoft had a booth at CES I didn’t see it – though I think their OEM group was there, there may have been some private demo suites and there were obviously lots of laptops running Microsoft software. They used to be a big player at CES, but a couple of years ago they pretty much dropped out.

I think this year they were more focused on Windows 10 and this week’s Consumer Preview Event.

It looks like Windows 10 will continue the every-other-operating-system-is-good tradition at Microsoft. And Windows 10 looks like what Windows 8 should have been.

Here’s a recap of what they announced this week:

  • Universal apps for PCs, phones and tablets
  • “Spartan” web browser – faster competition for Chrome, Firefox
  • New Windows Phone operating system is Windows 10
  • Cortana coming to the desktop (Microsoft’s version of Siri or Google Now)
  • W-10 is a free upgrade for Win 7 and 8.1 owners
  • Xbox integration
  • Surface Hub (Microsoft video conferencing) will run Windows 10
  • HoloLens holographic augmented reality headset supported by Windows 10

I’ve seen a couple of quick demos, but really don’t know much about it, first-hand. Next week the Microsoft Insider Program will allow people to download the preview. I’m planning to do this and I’ll report here on the results.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Acer at CES

Chromebooks sold well in the 2014 holiday season (apparently Amazon's top three laptops sold were Chromebooks). Acer has been a popular choice and they've just broadened the field with their huge 15.6" model, announced at CES.

Available with an Intel Core i3 or Intel Celeron 5th Gen processor. They also offer two choices of displays an HD 1920x1080 and a 1366x768 at lower cost. 

Other features:

  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports
  • HDMI
  • Reinforced case (this large laptop weighs almost 5 pounds…)
  • 16GB or 32GB drive
  • 2GB or 4GB RAM

Prices start at $250.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Nest update from CES

For some time Nest has been integrated with external operation/coordination tool IFTTT – handy for detecting and responding to events and allowing it to control the Nest, but new partnerships mean that integration with these suppliers is direct (not requiring IFTTT.)

At CES this year a number of companies were touting their "Works with Nest" capabilities:

  • Whirlpool washers and dryers can use Nest to tell when you're home so they can switch to quiet mode (and notify you when it's done.)
  • Ooma phone service can tell you're not at home and can forward calls when you leave.
  • Philips Hue can listen to your Nest and when the CO or smoke detector go off it can flash the lights.
  • Qwikset and August Smart locks can set your Nest to "home" when you unlock them and "away" when you lock them.
  • Dropcam can record when your smoke alarm is activated.
  • Chargepoint car chargers can learn from your Nest when energy is in high demand and wait to charge your car.
  • Your car can tell your Nest you're on your way home so it can adjust the heating/cooling.
As more and more devices are connected, there are limitless possibilities.

What kind of smart home integration would you like to see? Are there opportunities for smarthome technology in your business? What are the challenges?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

D-Link at CES: “Home is where the smart is.”

As I've mentioned before, I think one of the central problems of the "smart home" is the fact that you need as many different applications as there are devices to manage them. And all of them represent potential security holes in your home network, if they're not properly managed.

I have used a lot of D-link gear over the years and, while they're not always on the leading edge, they make good gear. This year at CES I got to see what D-Link has been up to. Their networking products look great. Unfortunately, their new home automation solutions are proprietary / closed. If they would open up their eco-system, I think they would be much more successful in this space.

We'll see.

Here's what they brought to CES:

Smart Home technology:
  • They offer two security kits including a motion sensor, a switch, an HD camera (with 802.11ac – i.e. high bandwidth - connectivity) with local or cloud storage. These are not cheap ($120-$230)
  • Connected Home Hub – a WiFi and Z-Wave bridge (with Z-Wave sensors for door open/close, motion, water sensor and a siren)
  • These use the mydlink app for control.
New high-performance wireless routers (pictured below):
  • AC3200 (two 5GHz radios plus 2.4GHz. 1.3Gbps on each of the 5GHz radios and 600 Mbps on the 2.4GHz) $310
  • AC3100 (4X4 MU-MIMO technology. 2Gbps on the 5GHz band and 1 GHz on the 2.4GHz) – no pricing or availability yet
  • AC5300 (MU-MIMO + XStream. 2 X 2.1 Gbps plus 1 Gbps on the 2.4 GHz side) – no pricing or availability yet
  • (MU-MIMO is a technology that uses different transmitters and antennae to connect to multiple users, for higher bandwidth.)
Powerline networking:
  • AV2 2000 Gigabit powerline networking (uses your home electrical distribution system for networking.) $130 available 1Q
Again, the only problem I have with them is closed architecture of their home automation systems. This continues to be a stumbling block for many home automation suppliers...

Monday, January 19, 2015

WiGig at CES

One of the problems with technology is wires. Wires for charging, connecting computers, sending video, hooking up keyboards and mice, etc. A lot of progress has been made with Bluetooth and WiFi, but I still have to run an HDMI cable from my Mac to my Monitor. And there are still plenty of USB devices around the office that are connected with wires.

One way to fix this is to improve wireless speeds and one way to do that is with WiGig, a new standard for connecting using 60 GHz radios (instead of 2.4/5 GHz WiFi) to connect things. With WiGig you can get about 7 GB/second vs. about 500 MB/second using advanced WiFi. (Using WiGig you could transfer an HD movie to a set-top box in a couple of minutes.)

In the Intel CES Keynote and on the show floor there was evidence that WiGig is gaining traction. Intel demoed a laptop connected to displays and other peripherals using WiGig. Samsung is expecting to have some products available using the technology this year. Qualcomm demonstrated a WiGig router that should be available by the end of the year. The technology is also likely to be included in some 2015 tablets and phones as well.  

Because of the 60 GHz signaling, the technology will typically be used in line-of-site applications (so the connecting devices will need to be in the same room.) But some phone technology researchers are looking at using WiGig to increase the capacity of cell networks as well in shopping malls or even on the streets of cities. It might also be able to be used in plants where cable runs are difficult or expensive to implement.

It will take a few years for the standard to become ubiquitous, but look for greatly increased network speeds coming soon.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Who's home?

The NetAtmo Welcome camera, shown last week at CES, recognizes the faces of people in your home and can record (or not) what it sees, based on who it sees.

If it sees someone it doesn’t recognize it can send you a picture and/or record video. In addition to providing some home security, it can tell you who’s home at any time. You can also view a live feed from the camera. It records in HD with a 130-degree field of view – in addition to the live feed, it can also record to a microSD.

Should be available Q2, but I haven't seen any pricing info yet (though I suspect it will be about $200 to be competitive.)

There were a lot of Internet of Things devices dedicated to home control and security at CES. Unfortunately, there are still too many ways to control them - most of them incompatible. So, for example, the app that controls your lights is different from the app that controls your thermostat. There are several proposed standards, but I think it will be some time before they can all work together seamlessly.

Check out the NetAtmo Welcome site for more info: 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Intel Curie microcontroller

At CES, Intel also announced the "Curie" module. It's a small computer designed for wearables, about the size of a shirt button.

Here are some of the specs:

Low-power 32bit Intel Quark microcontroller
384KB flash memory, 80KB SRAM
Integrated DSP sensor hub with accelerometer and gyro
Bluetooth low energy
Charging circuitry

It will likely be powered by a watch battery and used in sports devices, sensors and trackers. No news on pricing, but I suspect it'll be pretty cheap. Availability 2H15.

They announced their Edison product last year at this time – it's about the size of an SD card. Edison made its way into drones and robots when it was released last summer.

As processors continue to miniaturize and get cheaper, expect to see these things in more and more consumer products.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Intel Compute Stick

One of the interesting technologies announced at CES was the Intel Compute Stick.

The 4 inch long computer plugs into an HDMI port in a TV or monitor. Connect your Bluetooth wireless (or USB) keyboard and mouse and you've got a complete Windows 8.1 (or Linux) computer that's just a little larger than a Google ChromeCast.

Here are the specs: 

  • 1.33GHz quad-core Intel Atom Z3735F
  • 2GB RAM
  • 32GB storage
  • MicroSD slot (for more memory)
  • WiFi – 802.11 b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • Full-sized USB 2.0 port
  • MicroUSB 2.0 port for power
  • HDMI 1.4
  • Windows 8.1 Bing (the same version that runs on the $200 HP Stream 11.)
This could be a cheap way to deploy desktop computing for people that aren't heavy users, or even a thin-client replacement. It might be good for dedicated kiosks or digital media servers.

The Windows version is $149 and the Linux version will be $89 (with 1GB RAM and 8GB storage.) Looks like it will be available in March. There's a Chinese company that manufactures them called MeegoPad (T01/TB05) complete with an Intel logo for $150 on Amazon (I think I'll wait.)

When they're available, I'll get one and review it here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Nvidia high performance mobile computer announced at CES

Nvidia is known for their graphic processors. They announced the Tegra X1 at CES last week. It's the first of its kind, mobile, one teraflop computer (that’s a trillion floating point mathematical operations per second) at the center of their automotive control strategy. This new 8 core CPU with a 256 core GPU will be used in their Drive CX “Digital Cockpit Computer.” They’re releasing it along with “Drive Studio” as a complete off-the-shelf digital automotive cockpit solution. They’ve also announced the Drive PX “auto-pilot car computer.” – for parking and navigation and “ADAS” (Advanced Driver Assistance System”.
These devices are being used for neural network vision learning systems – something that video computers are uniquely suited for.
I suspect that other applications will be able to take advantage of this high-powered computer as it becomes available. Here's a link to one of the Nvidia sessions at CES: 
One of the touted advantages of self driving cars is safety – computer drivers can be much more aware of their surrounding than human drivers, they never get tired, they always obey the rules and consequently perform better and more safely over time.
At some point, self driving tow-motors and forklifts will be used in plants to increase performance and safety. It’s just a matter of time.

Monday, January 12, 2015

As in the past, CES was overwhelming. I'll be posting articles for the next couple of weeks on the things I saw.
If there are technologies that you're specifically interested in, just let me know and I'll see what I can dig up.

For me the highlights of the show can be bundled in to a few big categories:
  • Wearables/fashion peripherals – seemed like 1/3 of the north hall was cases, chargers, cameras, etc.
  • Automotive (self driving and driver assisted computing platforms)
  • TV's (again – some no-glasses 3D, curved screen, thin screen, 4K & 8K)
  • 3D imaging and printing
  • Internet of things (from all the big players)
  • Audio (speakers, headphones, record players…)
Intel was there showing off a couple of new technology bits (they did one of the keynotes
  • Tiny new computer based on the "Curie platform" – a computer about ½" in diameter
  • "RealSense" 3D cameras and processing for PC's (for gesture and recognition technology as well as robotic vision)
  • Face, device, fingerprint authentication technology
  • Wireless charging
  • Wearables
  • And, of course, higher performance processors.
  • They also introduced their new Compute Stick (available this summer). It's a Windows 8/Linux computer in a 4" long HDMI plugin package. This would be great for cheap/thin desktops! (Especially at its $149 price.)
Much more in the coming weeks.