Smarter Home 2022: Lights

Many years ago I wrote a piece titled The Future is Not Here and complained about how, in that point in time, we still weren’t at the technological future we had been reading about. That same year, 2015, I wrote another piece about how smart my home was. Looking back on those two pieces of work makes me happy and sad at the same time. Sad that not much has changed in almost seven years, but happy that one thing is better; most of our homes are “smarter” than they were before.

When I wrote about my smart home several years ago I only had one smart device to brag about. Thanks to Google’s lack of innovation I’m still using the same 3rd generation Nest thermostat. While it’s the oldest device in my home’s technology package, it’s also the most reliable. Much like your home appliances, reliability is something we want out of our smart devices. What if, for some reason, the thermostat crashed and I couldn’t turn on the heat? Thankfully, that hasn’t happened to me while I’ve owned the Nest thermostat.

Along with the smart home market, the Beard Blog home has exploded with new gadgets and internet connected widgets. WiFi light bulbs, smart assistants (lady in a tube), garage door controllers, game consoles, TVs, fans, doorbells, cameras, door locks, refrigerators, outlets, blinds, and light switches are just some of the things I’ve integrated into my home life over the last four years. Throughout this series, I’m going to dive into my favorite devices and how I’m using them to again, make my home smarter.

Hubs

Before we go too deep, I have to mention hubs or little boxes required to bridge some devices to your internet connection. These are usually included with a starter kit or part of the main device in the product’s offering. While we still haven’t settled on a standard smart home protocol (Bluetooth, HomeKit, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Thread, Matter), it is getting better. Some devices have been receiving software updates or hardware revisions to eliminate the hub. Even Apple HomeKit requires a hub if you want to access the device from outside your home. When I describe each device or system, I’ll be sure to mention if it requires a hub or not, which some people may not be fond of.

In addition to hubs that are made by the manufacturer, there are also third-party hubs to help bridge different protocols together. I’m going to deep dive into some of these hubs/bridges in a later post.

Smart Lights

Light bulbs are all over our homes and making them “smart” is the easiest and most useful entry into having a smart home. You can easily swap a regular light bulb with a connected one and have the ability to control it from anywhere. We now live in a world where there is a wide variety of smart bulbs available at almost any retailer. Some are direct phone to bulb connections, while others attach to your network to enable multi-bulb control.

smart home Philips hue
Philips Hue color light bulbs

I got my start with smart lights from probably the most popular line since the smart bulb inception, Philips Hue. Some years ago I sprung for the Philips Hue color starter kit which included three color bulbs and a Hue hub. I quickly replaced three lamps in my living room with these bulbs and played with all the color combinations, much to my wife’s dismay. While the Hue bulbs are great, and have been updated over the years, they’re using old technology. The individual bulbs connect wirelessly back to the Hue hub over a proprietary Z-Wave connection. The Hue hub has to be hard-wired to your home network which then allows the bulbs to show up in Apple Home. The hub also allows you to control the lights when you’re outside of your home network. Newer light bulbs have emerged that are independent and use Thread to communicate with your network, providing you have a Thread router, like a HomePod mini. I have two Thread bulbs currently in my home, one of which replaced a malfunctioning Hue bulb from my original starter kit. Out of my 11 Hue bulbs that are six plus years old, I’ve only had one fail.

In addition to smart bulbs I have some other types of connected lights that I like even more than the bulbs. In my office, I have a three-pronged light attack that I mostly use on conference calls. First, there’s a Nanoleaf Essentials light strip on the wall directly in front of me. This works to illuminate my face and reduce shadows on my video calls. Behind me on the wall is an array of Nanoleaf Shapes. These panels change colors and create a neat light scape behind my head. Lastly, in the Ikea Kallax furniture piece behind me on the floor, is a Govee RGBiC light strip. This light strip can change colors independently in sections creating a cool effect inside the cubes of the Kallax. All three of these light setups, have independent controls and are able to be controlled from anywhere. The two Nanoleaf devices have the native ability to connect to Apple HomeKit, but the Govee strip does not.

smart home Nanoleaf shapes
Nanoleaf Shapes

Where I cannot have smart bulbs or light strips, I have connected light switches. This allows me to control lights connected through traditional electrical lines and not need any special bulbs or fixtures. We recently remodeled our finished basement and instead of going with smart fixtures we opted for a TP-Link dimmable smart switch. This dimmable smart switch controls the track lighting on the ceiling and can dim them to several brightness levels. This is ideal for a well lit room, where we may never use the full power of the LED lights.

On our back patio, we have a smart switch just inside the sliding door. This is a unique situation as the switch has two rockers on it to control two different lights. Then, to make it more complicated, I’ve added an outdoor smart outlet with two outlets on the one light switch. The internal switch controls the spotlight for the backyard, while the other switch turns on the outdoor outlet. That outdoor outlet controls a patio fan and overhead lighting. While it sounds complicated, it’s actually pretty simple when controlling them using physical controls, automations, or smart assistants. One gang, two switches, three devices.

My main purpose for all this smart lighting is not to be cool and have connected light bulbs, but more for ease of use and automations. The main area of my house, some may call it the living room, has no overhead lighting, so we rely on four lamps to provide light. Having to turn these on manually would be a pain and wiring them up to a switch would be costly. With smart bulbs, I have them set to turn on 30 minutes prior to sunset which ensures the room is well lit as the natural light declines.

While I’ve upgrades every light in my house to LED, not everything is a smart light, bulb, or switch. The bathrooms, dining room, kitchen, hallways, and spare bedrooms are where a manual switch is just easier to control the dumb lights. My bedroom has a ceiling fan with four light sockets integrated. I have four Philips Hue white ambiance bulbs in this ceiling fan so I don’t have to pull the chain or get up to turn on/off the lights at the switch.

Recently, I implemented an automation in the living room to better enhance the light experience. My biggest complaint was on the days where natural light was hard to come by, the living room would be dark. I could easily turn on the lights with my phone or home assistant, but I wanted to explore an automation that can turn on the lights based on the light available. My first thought was using an automation that can detect when it’s raining, and turn on the lights. That was easily defeated as here in Pittsburgh we have a lot of overcast days with no precipitation.

The automation I integrated that I’m still using today consists of the following, try to follow along:
I’m using a Philips Hue motion sensor that also has a built-in light meter. When this light meter falls below 2 lux, it triggers an automation within the Apple HomeKit system. Because of the complexity of this, I have to use a Shortcut to run the commands. Also, I only want to turn on the lights during certain times of the day, so it doesn’t turn on in the middle of the night. HomeKit doesn’t allow a lot of triggers, so I’m using the motion sensor as a trigger to kick everything off.

Each time motion is detected in the living room, only during the day >
Run Shortcut 'Living Room Lights On' >
     Is light level <= 2 lux?
          Yes -> turn on living room lights
          No -> do nothing

What’s nice is this is a set-it and forget-it approach. Now when it’s gloomy outside, my lights come on.

Some other automations around lighting in my house
  • When the doorbell detects motion, turn on porch light, only at night.
  • When back patio door is opened, turn on patio lights.
  • Manually triggered ‘Good Night’ scene turns all lights off.
  • When a garage door opens, the garage lights turn on for 10 minutes.

Be sure to follow along for the next Smarter Home 2022 entry where I go over smart speakers.

Scanning Photographs in 2022

photograph collage

The Inspiration

On the latest episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Reconcilable Differences, John Siracusa explained his latest project where he was scanning old photographs. He recently acquired a new multi-function printer and while testing the quality of the scanner stumbled upon an in-depth project. That got me thinking, ”this sounds like something I might want to do.” John goes on to detail his process and all the drawbacks up to the point of questioning why he is even undertaking this large task.

What’s My Purpose

As a once professional and hobbyist photographer I’ve been taking digital photos since 2002 and have amassed an iCloud Photo Library in excess of 50,000 images. That being said, I do posses some non-digital photographs that I’d like to preserve longer than I feel that I can take care of printed images. For a graduation present, my mother made me a scrapbook of my life thus far through photographs. This is a priceless keepsake that unfortunetly uses original photographs. Again for my 30th birthday she flexed her creative muscles again by making a photo board of more pictures from my first 30 years. She used about 30 original photos on this board and I’ve kept the board around since, because I wanted to keep the photographs it contained. This board was the perfect starting point to test drive a scanning project similar to John’s.

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What is a Stream Deck?

You may have seen something like this on technology blogs (like this one!), YouTube videos, or even your favorite Twitch streamer, but what actually is this Stream Deck thing everyone is talking about?

I’ve always thought a Stream Deck was a command station for streamers and YouTubers that can control their streamy stuff and play stupid sound effects. While I wasn’t wrong, the Stream Deck platform is open and friendly to those of us who are into automation and scripting.

Like a lot of people, I took advantage of holiday season sales to purchase a Stream Deck by Elgato. The device is a very simple piece of hardware. At it’s core, it’s a USB keyboard that stands upright on your desk. The version I have has a five by three grid of clear buttons that each have an LCD screen under them. I opted for the mk.2 version that was released in the summer of 2021. (What are the differences?) The ability to have anything on the screen under the buttons make the Stream Deck very fun to play with and to use!

I’m going to go into very technical detail of how my Stream Desk is set up and what I use it for. Hold on to your butts!

The main page layout of my Stream Deck
Time and Date

The first button is a simple date/time display with my custom background color applied. No action occurs when this button is pressed.
Time plugin by Krabs.




Stock Ticker

Moving from left to right, the next button is a stock ticker display. Currently I have it set to show $AAPL. When you press this button it retrieves an update on the stock price, outside of its schedule update.
Stocks plugin by exension





Screen Saver

When I walk away from my computer, I want to just put up the screensaver until is goes to sleep. This button, when pressed, runs a custom AppleScript to start the screensaver. At the same time, the Stream Deck goes into screen saver mode.
Custom icon featuring a green iMac, by me.
RunAppleScript plugin by mushoo.

tell application "System Events" 
    start current screen saver
end tell
Lights On and Lights Off

The next two buttons are the same, except the left one is for on, and the right is for off. They both run an AppleScript that runs a Shortcut. The macOS Shortcut turns on/off the lights in my office I use for video calls. This consists of a Nanoleaf essentials light strip in front of my face, Nanoleaf shapes on the wall behind me, and a Govee RGBIC light strip on my Kallax unit behind me.
Custom lightbulb icons by me.
RunAppleScript plugin by mushoo.


--on
tell application "Shortcuts Events"
	run shortcut "Office Lights On"
end tell
--off
tell application "Shortcuts Events"
	run shortcut "Office Lights Off"
end tell
Start Working

The first icon in the second row is another AppleScript button that I call ‘Start Working’. This is usually the first thing I do when I start working from home. It opens all the URLs I like to look at (e.g. Amazon, BlipShift, Woot) and work related web pages. It also opens all the applications I use daily like Outlook, Slack, Teams, NewsExplorer, LastPass, and Music.
Custom briefcase icon by me.
RunAppleScript plugin by mushoo.



OctoDeck

The next button is another display only button that really doesn’t do much when pressed. This is called Octodeck and is a plugin that talks to my 3D printer server, Octoprint. This displays the percentage complete of an active 3D print job. I added a couple lines to the original creator’s code to include the time left, one line under the percentage.
Octodeck plugin by cpeuschel.




Now Playing

This center button is kind of a playground of what’s possible. I was testing Keyboard Maestro and its Stream Deck integration and came up with this. In Keyboard Maestro I have a timed macro that runs every 1 minute and grabs the song info from the Music app and pushes it to the Stream Deck button. Also, if you press the button, it will update the info outside of the one minute interval.
Keyboard Maestro plugin by Stairways Software.




Album Art

Another mostly info-only button, displays the album art of the currently playing song in Music. When not playing it shows a play button that can be used to start playing music. This is a simple one, but I like having the album art displayed on my Stream Deck.
Apple Music plugin Elgato – available in the Stream Deck app.



Skip Track

The last button in this row, is a simple ‘next track’ button for Apple Music. When pressed this will skip to the next song when music is playing. I like having this button on Stream Deck as well as on my Apple keyboard.
Custom icon made by me.
Apple Music plugin Elgato – available in the Stream Deck app.




Sound and Lights Folder
Sound Effects

In the third row, we start with two folders. The first folder holding sound effects that can be triggered with the push of a button. I also have a button in this folder to switch to my Zoom profile as I’m usually triggering these sounds while on a Zoom call.

Light Control

The second folder is for all my lighting controls. I can go into this folder and adjust my office lighting as needed outside of my normal on/off functions on the main screen. In this folder I can change the scene on my Nanoleaf shapes, adjust my Govee light strip, and set all lights to red (when I’m angry).

Kallax and red icons by me, others by plugin.
Nanoleaf-Tiles plugin by fSoft ltd.
Govee plugin by me – release TBD



Slack

Another folder in the third row houses my quick access commands for Slack. All of these buttons use a hotkey command to make changes to text in Slack. The middle button with the slack logo, when pressed, opens Slack or brings the application into focus.

  • Phone – /callstarts a call in Slack channel
  • Giphy – /giphyprefix for sending a random GIF
  • ThumbsUp – ????????types and send thumbs up emoji
  • Quotes – shift+⌘+9formats the selected text as a block quote
  • </> – shift+⌘+Cformats the selected text as code
  • </> block – option+shift+⌘+Cformats the selected text as code block
  • Strike – shift+⌘+Xformats the selected text with strikethrough
    Custom icons by me.
    System Hotkey plugin by Elgato – available in the Stream Deck app
Mute Speakers

Next to last, is a mute button. When pressed, this mutes all sounds on the computer connected to the Stream Deck. I usually use this when I receive a phone call or need to quickly hear something not in my office.
Custom mute icon by me.
System Multimedia plugin by Elgato – available in the Stream Deck app.



Mute Mic

The last button is a microphone mute toggle. This is a system-wide button that when pressed either mutes or unmutes the computer microphone. Useful for when I’m using a video chat app that’s not Zoom or Teams.
Custom mic icon by me.
Mic Mute Toggle plugin by Fred Emmott.


Stream Deck Profiles

The Stream deck can support multiple profiles that will display specific pages based on the application you’re using. I’m using three profiles in addition to the default profile, outlined above.

Adobe Photoshop Profile

When I’m using Photoshop I like to have quick actions in front of me instead of trying to remember the keyboard shortcuts. As I use this profile more with Photoshop, I’m sure I’ll add more commands.
The icons used in this profile were provided by SideShowFX.






Zoom Profile

While on a Zoom call, I like to have a button to press to mute my microphone, as everyone should. (and remember to unmute it) I found a Zoom plugin that gives you more than just mute, but also camera control and some other useful buttons. The center button with the Zoom logo does nothing other than let me know which profile I’m in at a glance. The button in the very bottom-right corner switches me back to my default profile where I can access light controls and sounds. If I click out the Zoom app and then go back to Zoom, the Zoom Stream Deck profile reactivates.
Zoom plugin and icons by LostDomain.

Microsoft Teams Profile

Lastly, I have a Teams profile which is similar to the Zoom profile, but there is no plugin I’ve found as of writing this. I’m using hotkey buttons to trigger actions in Teams, like mute/unmute and show/hide camera. The Teams logo in the middle acts as a profile switch to go back to the default profile.







Should you buy a Stream Deck?

Overall I think the Stream Deck is a fun toy and can be helpful with repetitive tasks. Would I be lost without one? No, but I’ve already gotten comfortable with the buttons/display I have setup that I would buy a replacement if mine was stolen.

Youtube Twitch GIF by Elgato

Should you buy one? That’s a difficult question because everyone’s needs/wants are different. If you’re into tinkering, scripting, and/or automation I think you should give Stream Deck a try. If you’re not, you may struggle with what to do with your new Stream Deck. It can always be used to add a wow factor to your desk setup.

Things to Note

  • The Stream Deck currently only works on a Windows or Mac computer. The Stream Deck community has it running in Linux, but is not officially supported.
  • The Stream Deck device must always be plugged into the computer to work, there’s no wireless option.
  • In order to get the auto-switching profiles for specific applications, the Stream Deck software has to be running, but not currently have any windows open. If you have any Stream Deck application windows open, in the background or not, the automatic switching will not work. This is somewhat annoying and hard to determine on macOS as the application does not show up in the application switcher or dock.
  • The Stream Deck software has to be running for the device to work. If you quit the app, the Stream Deck goes into screensaver mode and does not function.
  • If you have more than one computer, you have to transfer/re-install your plugins, icons, etc. on each computer. Currently there’s no cloud syncing between devices. Same goes if you have multiple Stream Decks.
Stream Deck GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY
image from Giphy

Fun Tips & Tricks

  • You can set the icon of any button to an animated GIF
  • Any button can have a custom icon – you can make your own or download them
  • You can take a single image and chop it up into a grid and set that as your button icons
  • The mk.1 and mk.2 Stream Deck are vey similar with the exception of the mk.2 having USB-C (at the Stream Deck end only), longer cable, solid stand, and interchangeable faceplate (not included)
  • There are currently three sizes of Stream Deck, mini 3×2, regular 5×3, and XL 8×4
  • The Stream Deck SDK is very friendly and anyone can make their own plugins for free using Javascript, python, html, or c#
  • Elgato’s software is free and you don’t need a device to play with Stream Deck configurations

Let me know on Twitter if you also have a Stream Deck and the different things you do with it.

This is not sponsored content. Elgato is not affiliated nor has influenced this post.

Apple MacBook Pro 14-inch – Beard Blog Review

MacBook Pro keyboard

The biggest story of this #techtober has been the new Apple MacBook Pro notebook computers. When Apple made the MacBook Pro thinner, lighter, and only strictly USB-C, the “pros” complained. For five years, the complaining continued with only minor adjustments from Apple. They pretty much admitted the butterfly keyboard was bad (without really saying it) and eventually reverted to a traditional scissor switched keyboard.1 I liked the look and feel of the butterfly keyboards, but they were a magnet for debris and often caused typing issues.

Like Apple’s other notebooks, the MacBook Pro finally moved away from Intel to Apple’s own M1 chip. The M1 Pro and M1 Max are faster than the M1, but all are way faster than Intel at most tasks.2

This is the first HDR computer screen I’ve had the pleasure of using and all I can say is, wow! It’s definitely a change worth seeing in person as well as the still not fully implemented ProMotion refresh.

MacBook Pro ports

Apple decided it didn’t want to hear people complain about the lack of ports on the MacBooks Pro anymore so they brought back the HDMI port and SD card slot. They added MagSafe back to the notebooks in a new smaller/thinner design, but it comes at the cost of one of the previous four USB-C ports. I’ve read a lot of people complaining that the MacBooks don’t have a USB-A port. This is not an issue. We’ve had only USB-C since 2016 and the type A port is clearly a dying breed. If you somehow still have something that can’t be upgraded to USB-C, grab your dongle, plug it in, and move on.

If you want to read more about the processors and MacBooks Pro, check out Apple’s technical specifications.

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Which AirPods Are Right For You?

AirPods_hero

AirPods are completely wireless earphones that go in your ears to provide music or other audio from your Bluetooth device. Apple again revolutionlized music by making earphones that didn’t need wires and were super easy to use. They even went viral during their launch that made AirPods the trendy must-have accessory.

Five years later, Apple now sells four different versions of AirPods, and like some other product categories can be really confusing, especially when buying for others.

AirPods Max are a different kind of listening device and are more of a headphone than an earphone product.

I’m going to talk about the three white wireless versions of AirPods. These are always great gifts for the holidays and are still immensely popular with the younger crowds, but which AirPods are right for you?

AirPods (2nd-Generation)

The now iconic shape of wireless earbuds were refreshed in 2019 to offer additional features like “Hey Siri”, longer battery life, and wireless charging case. Other than the new features, the AirPods shape and design remained the same. It’s impossible to tell a generation 1 product from a generation 2 just by looking at them.

Like the EarPods that proceeded the AirPods, they were designed for a wide variety of ears and rest on the antitragus and intertragal notch. When they were first announced, everyone exclaimed that they were going to fall out of ears and get lost. Based on how EarPods always popped out, it was a hard sell. About 10 minutes after AirPods were in wearer’s ears, they were a hit. So much of a hit, they immediately faced a supply issue. I remember showing people my AirPods and they were in disbelief of the fact that they would stay in my ears, even while jogging.

AirPods Pro

With the success of the first generation AirPods came a lot of outcry that they just didn’t work in some ears. Additionally, the AirPods didn’t isolate sound and were basically useless on airplanes. About six months after the second generation AirPods were announced, Apple announced the AirPods Pro. These featured in-ear silicone tips that completely isolated sound and increased sound quality. Most people were familiar with earbuds that featured the same design, but Apple made the earbud a lot better. Noise cancelling, transparency mode, and increased frequency response were touted as the main features of the Pros. The biggest change was the shape. Gone was the long stem that projected out of people’s ears and was replaced by a stouter, less obvious version. The in-ear portion has silicone tips (in three sizes) to seal in the sound. The case was bigger and wider so the new style could fit in to charge magnetically like the original AirPods.

Apple will inevitably announce second generation AirPods Pro, but probably not until Spring 2022 at the earliest. The Pros being the flagship AirPods, they’ll probably receive new technology before it trickles down to the non-Pro AirPods.

AirPods 3

In October 2021, Apple announced what they’re calling the AirPods (3rd generation) but I’ll be referring to them as the AirPods 3 for confusion avoidance. This was the first time AirPods have changed shapes in almost five years. They look strikingly similar to the AirPods Pro by shrinking the stem and adding more speakers to the in-ear portion. The headlining features of the AirPods 3 are spatial audio, sweat/water resistance, and longer battery life. They also changed the controls to match the Pros by adding a force sensor to the stem so you can squeeze instead of jackhammering your ear. In a rare Apple move, the price also decreased from $199 to $179 for the wireless charging case.

Enjoy my ear as I cycle through wearing all three AirPods

Which AirPods Do I Want?

This is quite the subjective question because all ears are not created equal. The complicated answer falls into three categories to determine which AirPods are right for you.

  1. I want the cheapest AirPods, I don’t care about price.
    • AirPods 2nd generation are right for you, if you can find the 1st-gen, grab those instead
  2. I want to use my AirPods for working out and casual listening.
    • The added sweat resistance and comfort level of the AirPods 3 is great in this scenario
  3. I travel a lot and want to use my AirPods on planes, trains, and automobiles.
    • AirPods Pro offer noise cancelling and adjustable listening modes to aid you when traveling
Some caveats to those recommendations

AirPods (2nd generation) fit in most ears, while AirPods 3 are a bit larger and have trouble staying in ears with smaller openings. If you’re interested in moving from 2nd-gen to 3rd-gen, be aware that the AirPod is larger than the previous. My wife was able to wear 2nd-gen with no issue, but 3rd-gen do not stay in her ears.


AirPods Pro seal off outside noises and can cause you to hear internal noises while you’re ears a blocked. Think chewing and walking thumps. To me, this is the most annoying part of the Pros.

Tech Specs Showdown

AirPods 2nd-gen
AirPods Pro
AirPods 3
Price

$129

$249

$179

Active Noise Cancellation

No

Yes

No

Spatial Audio

No

Yes
Yes
Sweat/Water Resistant

No

Yes
Yes
Battery Life

5 hours

4.5 hours

6 hours
Wireless Charging Case

No

Yes
Yes
"Hey Siri"

Yes

Yes

Yes

Controls

Double-tap

Squeeze

Squeeze

Size (weight)

1.59"x.65"x.71" (4g)

1.22"x.86"x.94"(5.4g)

1.21"x.72"x.76" (4.28g)

Read more about Apple Products on Beard Blog

Apple Watch Series 7 – A Beard Blog Review

apple watch series 7

The Apple Watch is a weird product because unlike the iPhone, it doesn’t have much utility outside of showing me information. Sure it logs health and activity data, but when you get a new watch you strap it on your wrist, it’s just there. No flashy features or cameras to test out, just an appliance waiting for you wonder what time it is. 

I’ve been wearing a watch just about every day on my left wrist for the last 12 years. I started out with ordinary mid-level watches and then got into collecting different types of movements, shapes, and sizes. The day that I got my first Apple Watch, all of that stopped. I no longer felt the need to change my watch based on my outfit or mood, I could now do that with a band. I still was wearing a watch every day, but this time for a different reason. If I missed a day of closing my activity rings, I felt like I forgot to do something that day. 

The best part about the new display on the Series 7 is the digital time is larger and easier to read.

Much has changed since the first Apple Watch both with my lifestyle (thanks COVID) and the Apple Watch itself. What started out as a fashion accessory that can run apps, slowly evolved into a health monitor that tells you the time. I’m overly pleased with where the watch has gone and shamelessly order the new model every year on day one. 

The Series 7 is different. Something is going on at Apple in the watch department. I can’t quite figure out what it is, but maybe in time it will be revealed. All of the leakers and rumor sites were dead certain that this year’s watch would be a complete redesign and it look totally different. What we actually got was the same watch, with a slightly different screen. It’s almost like this was the backup plan when ‘plan A’ didn’t pan out. That being said, Apple is able to manufactur and deliver a huge amount of technology during this unprecedented component shortage. I wouldn’t have faulted them for just skipping this year’s watch and make it up to us next year. Tim Cook loves selling widgets so here we are.

Not much is new on my Series 7 versus my outgoing Series 6, but if you’re curious, head over to Apple’s website to check it out.

I loved having a stainless steel watch for the better sapphire crystal, but I couldn’t pass up my favorite color being an available aluminum option. The green anodized aluminum looks almost black in most lighting, but in direct sunlight you can see the gorgeous green glow!

series 6 vs series 7 animated
Animating the differences in the UI elements and screen size on Series 7 vs Series 6

The Good

  • Bigger screen in same sized case 1
  • UI elements, like buttons got bigger
  • Every Apple Watch band made is still compatible
  • Fast charging is great for all-day watch wearers
  • Finally, a full keyboard we can use for text entry
  • Small iteration on already good formula

The Missed Opportunities

  • Color choices are very bland and too limiting 2
  • We were expecting a full redesign, has that been delayed?
  • Faster wireless communication should be addressed
  • Same proprietary “wireless” watch charger 3
  • The display is brighter in “wrist down” mode, but the UI elements still annoyingly move 4

The Bad

  • Still requires an iPhone to use
  • Watch faces are not very interesting, and stale
  • No third-party watch faces
  • Third-party app market is struggling
BeardBlog Score: 8.5/10

Maybe next year we’ll see a redesign and some noteworthy feature upgrades, but for now this remains a small iteration over last year’s similarly small iteration, the Series 6.

More Beard Blog tech reviews

iPhone 13 Pro Max -A Beard Blog Review

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max
Review

The iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max are all-new this year, again. Every year, like clockwork, we get new iPhones. Just like last year apple announced four new phones with a new number, 13. Last year’s all new design was a great departure from the rounded bars of soap we’ve had for six years. If you’ve been following iPhones for a while, you may know that they like to do what most people call an “S” year. Starting with the 3GS, then 4S, 5S, 6S, and XS, we’ve come to understand that an “S” year is less new design and more internal upgrades.

The iPhone 13 should have been an “S” year. Not sure why we didn’t see the iPhone 12S, but I was betting on it. Literally, bet lunch on it being named the iPhone 12S.

So in the iPhone 12S 13 we get better cameras, bigger batteries and a new processor. The Pros got 120hz display and even better cameras.

I opted to replace my iPhone 12 Pro Max with an iPhone 13 Pro Max. As long as they’re making giant pro phones, I’m buying them.

I’m not going to go into the new features or what Apple is marketing on the device, you can see that at apple.com/iphone.

The Good

  • The 120hz display makes motion buttery smooth, and I smile whenever I notice it
  • The camera upgrades while minor year-over-year, have a huge impact on everyday photos
  • Macro photos are fun and a game changer
    Beard Blog iPhone macro photography deep-dive
  • Same squared-side design that looks modern and still feels new
  • Sierra Blue is a refreshing take on a silver finish
  • OLED screen is brighter, which is useful in direct sunlight

The Missed Opportunities

  • Moving to USB-C should have happened this year
  • The camera / Face ID notch got smaller-ish, but it’s size still feels outdated
  • Same software limitations running on a super-fast SoC
  • Night Mode could be better with the new camera hardware
    Beard Blog iPhone Night Mode deep-dive
  • My phone shipped with eSim enabled, but I still have an ugly SIM card slot
  • The physical mute switch is great, but someday it’s gotta go
  • Speaker holes are still asymmetric

The Bad

  • Front-facing camera feels old and needs updated like other Apple devices
  • Rear camera bump is huge, more noticeable on smaller phones 
  • Telephoto (3x) rear camera has more reach, but less quality
  • Face ID hasn’t seen any major improvements since it was debuted on the iPhone X, while iPads can see faces in different orientations
  • The back face of the phone is still slippery and fragile

Changing to USB-C, upgrading the front camera, and making it more grippy, might make this a 10 / 10 for me.

We’ll see what next year’s iPhone brings, which I’m sure will be named iPhone 14. Will we see USB-C finally or just no ports at all? Stay tuned, here and only here, for iPhone hot takes.

Low-Light Shootout

night-mode

Apple iPhone Pro Max vs. Sony a7III

Low-light photography is all the rage now on smartphones. Better sensors and lenses combined with artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other 21st-century buzzwords allow smartphone cameras to actually see in the dark. But how good are they?

Low-light photography has been around for a long time, especially on professional-grade cameras that can hold the shutter open for extended periods of time allowing the sensor to gather as much light as possible.
With the overhauled and widely acclaimed camera system on the iPhone 13 Pro/Pro Max, I thought it would be a good time to see how it compares to a “real” camera.
Using the same tripod and lighting conditions, I captured my backyard with both an iPhone 13 Pro Max and a Sony a7III mirrorless camera.

Let’s start with the iPhone 13 Pro Max, 10-second “Night Mode” capture1

ISO 5000 26mm f/1.5 2.0″ HEIC

You can see there’s not a lot of light here. 10-seconds is a long time to shoot an image handheld, but on a tripod, it’s not nearly long enough.

iPhone 13 Pro Max, 30-second “Night Mode” capture 2

ISO 6400 26m f/1.5 10″ RAW

A lot more light here, almost looks like it’s daylight outside. While the image is visible and you can see details, there’s a lot of noise present and if you zoom in you can see some blurring from noise reduction.

Sony a7III 10-second exposure at f/1.8

ISO 5000 50mm f/1.8 10″ ARW

Much more clearer detail here and has that daylight look like the 30-second iPhone shot. The high ISO gives it a softer look and has some visible noise.

Sony a7III 30-second exposure

ISO 1250 50mm f/1.8 30″ ARW

The ultimate night shot, at 30 seconds the sensor has enough time to capture enough light it can reduce the ISO and crisp-up all the details.
Some might say, “This isn’t a fair fight!”, but if Apple is aiming to take on the prosumer camera market, they need to have benchmarks. This three year old camera shows just how far smartphone cameras still have to go to be competitive.

If you’re looking to get great photos in a dimly lit room, an iPhone with Night Mode will do the job.
If you want to create daylight out of near-pitch-black, get a tripod and a big camera that can suck in all the light available.

Check out my iPhone 13 Pro Max review here (coming soon)

Macro Shootout

iPhone-13-pro

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Sony a7III

Macro photography is capturing larger than life images to show detail on smaller objects that you normally don’t get to appreciate with the naked eye.

Apple’s most recent flagship phones, iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max, have a new macro capability that allows the ultra wide lens to focus on objects that are as close as two centimeters. Macro photography is always fun to do especially with insects, flowers, and everyday objects. Never has it been so accessible to a consumer with the object they carry around in their pockets.

I’ve decided to see how well the iPhone 13 Pro Max does against a “big” camera with a cheap macro lens. 

I’m using a 7artisans 60mm f/2.8 lens that I purchased on Amazon, mounted on a Sony a7III, and honestly this lens is hard to use and not intended for a full-frame sensor, but let’s see how it looks.

I found a decorative wool pumpkin decorating our house for fall and through the woven nature would be a great test

Both images were artificially lit with an external LED light source to maximize detail.
You can see how much more detail and clarity comes out of the iPhone lens.

Here’s another comparison of a closer shot.

The iPhone 13 Pro Max macro capability is fantastic. Granted, I could probably match quality with an expensive macro lens on my Sony Mirrorless camera, but now I see no need with the iPhone camera.

Lastly, here’s a small collection of great macro images I captured on the iPhone 13 Pro Max.

 

In the two weeks since the iPhone 13 Pro was released I’ve been taking macro shots of everything I can find and like most new iPhone features I think this will stick around. We’ll see in a year how many macro shots from the iPhone I’ve accumulated.

Check out my iPhone 13 Pro Max review here (coming soon)

The Best of 2020: iOS Apps

“There’s an app for that!”

Continuing my list of the best things from 2020, mostly what helped us get through the pandemic, the most obvious thing you use a lot is your phone. There are a lot of great apps I use everyday but the three I’m about to list are essential apps for entertaining me, staying connected, and getting me what I need. What are some of your favorite apps of the past year?

Read more

The Best of 2020: Technology

One of my favorite categories to talk about and engage with others on is technology. Not only is it my day job but I would consider technology to also be a hobby and lifestyle of mine. Surprisingly 2020 gave us a lot of new technology; I guess that’s one thing that the pandemic couldn’t hold back. Some things were delayed, other things are supply constraint, but after it’s all said and done, nothing really got cancelled because of COVID. Good things come to those who wait so my top three picks this year were all released within a week of each other.

In order of release date, here are my three picks for best piece of technology sold in 2020:

Xbox Series X – November 10 | $499

The next generation of gaming is here! Finally we have solid state storage standard and get the amazing features like 120 frames per second and ray tracing. These are still really hard to find along with its counterpart the Sony PS5 due to high demand and low supply. Earlier this year I wrote about how you may want to put a new TV on your list as well to take full advantage of this new hardware.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max – November 13 | Starts at $999

The iPhone design is all new this year and Apple finally brought back the flat edge design that the iPad Pro has had for a few years now. In addition to the great new design, all new iPhones get 5G, OLED displays, and new colors. The best of them all, the iPhone 12 Pro Max, includes major changes to the three camera system producing some of the best photos you can get out of a smartphone. Two really great things about the new iPhones Pro are storage and video. Apple starts the Pro Max out at 128GB which is the sweet spot of storage for me. Lastly, the new iPhones Pro take HDR (Dolby Vision) video which may not seem like much, but when you watch it on your phone or an HDR TV, you really see the difference. I don’t want to take any other kind of videos again.

Apple MacBook Air – November 17 | Starts at $999

Earlier this summer Apple mentioned they would be ditching Intel for their processors and moving to their own, dubbed Apple Silicon. Now we have the first set of Macs which include the new Apple Silicon processors, the M1. It’s crazy to think that for only $999 you can get a tiny little laptop that has all day battery life and is faster than 90% of the computers out on the market, right now. We’ll probably never see leaps and bounds like this in computers again, so we have to relish it while it’s here. Anyone who asks me what computer they should buy, before they can finish I blurt out “MacBook Air with M1”. It’s great for everything from web browsing to professional video editing. It’s truly a great computer at a great price.

Honorable mention:
LG CX OLED 65″ TV | April – $2199.99


Check out more of my ‘Best of 2020’ —> Here

Apple Watch Series 6 Review: Time Matured

Another year, another Apple Watch. Even amid the craziness of 2020 Apple found time to release an update to one of their still emerging products. I’ve been a fan of the Apple Watch since day one and it keeps getting better and better with each revision. I purchased the Apple Watch Series 6 on launch day making this my fifth watch since the original in 2015.

Just like last year, there aren’t a lot of major changes, especially when views as a year over year change. The Series 6 still looks the same and comes in the same sizes as the Series 4 and 5. The biggest three changes this year are the addition of the blood oxygen sensor, new case colors, and better always-on display.

The Series 5 finally gave me a feature that I’ve been longing for ever since the first Apple Watch, the always-on display. This allows you to view information on your watch without having to raise or flip your wrist. The Series 6 expands on that with a brighter display that allows you to see it better in sunlight (in always-on mode).

Something that is pretty relevant right now with COVID-19 being a respiratory disease, is the ability to measure your blood oxygen level. You may have seen this in your doctor’s office when they put a sensor on your finger to get your pulse and a percentage usually in the high 90s. Apple warns that this is not a health device so it should only be viewed as informational. I suspect this is just a liability protection until they can get FDA clearance like the ECG.

Apple Watch rear sensors

I used the Apple Watch blood oxygen reading and a traditional sensor and they both resulted in 99%. To me, this justifies the level of accuracy I would expect out of this device. Just like the ECG in the Series 5 (which is still present and the same in Series 6) I’ll probably only use this occasionally when I remember it exists. The watch will also take background measurements when you are idle, which could be interesting to track.

For the first time ever, we finally have actual colors in the Apple Watch. Instead of the usual silver, space gray, and gold finishes, we get an anodized blue and red finish for the Series 6. These look great in person with and have a similar matte finish as the iPhone 11. The stainless model also got a refined finish changing the black to graphite.

The model I went with is the Apple Watch Series 6 44mm Graphite Stainless Steel. Usually I opt for the Aluminum “Sport” versions, but after a few years of my watch face getting severely scratched I find the stainless model (which features a sapphire crystal lens) to be better against scratches.

In addition to a new Apple Watch Series 6, Apple introduced a lower-priced SE version. This is the same as the Series 6, but without the blood oxygen sensor, ECG, and always-on display. This creates a good, better, best structure to the Apple Watch tiers allowing a wider variety of buyers.

New watches usually come with new bands and this time around Apple debuted a new style called the Solo Loop. Similar to the original Sport Bands, this is a single piece of silicone that you can stretch around your hand to attach to your wrist. These bands come in 12 different sizes (1 – 12) to fit a wide variety of wrists. Downside to this is it’s not like shoes where most people know their size. You have to measure your wrist and hope it’s correct. Apple provides a printable measuring tool to measure your wrist. The tool told me I was a size 12, but I concluded a 11 would be a better fit. After getting the band, I could have gone down to a 10, but that might be too tight. If you but a Solo Loop band with an Apple Watch, and it doesn’t fit, you have to return the entire watch and band to get another one. This is a difficult online-only purchase as in-store try ons would be great for this item.

Update: I have since reached out to Apple about their Solo Loop sizing debacle. They have revised their return policy to allow returning of the band purchased with the watch. Apple also update their sizing guide to make it more clear that it needs to be a tight measurement. They are sending me a size 10 and a box to send them the too large size 11 back. To make things right, they’re also gifting me a Sport Band for my troubles.

Apple Watch on wrist
Apple Watch Series 6 44mm Graphite Stainless Steel
Wrapped in Longvadon Caiman Band

Of course you don’t have to use a watch band made by Apple. One of my favorite bands are made by the good folks over at Longvadon. They make luxury watch bands that pair great with an Apple Watch. Made to look like they came right off a high-end luxury traditional watch. The cost of these bands slots nicely between the cheap knockoffs and the really expensive Apple bands. My favorite thing about these Longvadon bands is they combine the traditional metal clasp with a buckle fastener, meaning you can just unclasp the watch and slide it off your hand instead of fiddling with the buckle. Pictured above is the ‘Men’s Whiskey Brown w/ Silver Details’ from their Caiman Series. It has a beautiful embossed crocodile pattern on top of high quality top grain bovine leather. The inside of the strap is very comfortable and soft. Shortly after I got my Apple Watch Series 6 I had a wedding to attend and the Longvadon watch band was the perfect way to class up my watch for the formal occasion. You can get your own Longvadon watch band on their website use my exclusive code ‘BEN20’ to save 20% off all products in their store!

There’s always a great reason to get a new Apple Watch, and this year’s lineup is no exception. With all the fitness and health benefits of an Apple Watch I recommend any iPhone user (and now their kids) look into being an Apple Watch wearer.

Like the watch faces you see here? Download those and more on my Apple Watch face page.

Read more about my thoughts on the Apple Watch