Smarter Home 2022: Smart Lock

nest x yale smart lock

Recently I made a change to my daily driving vehicle, read about it here. My new vehicle doesn’t allow me to park inside my integrated garage which changes how I enter/exit my house. Previously, after parking in the garage, I could enter the house through the interior door to go inside. Now, I have to park out in the weather and go through my front door. Because of this change, I had to take a long hard look at the current smart lock on my front door.

When moving into my current house I purchased a smart lock that was the best available at the time. The Yale Assure SL had all the bells and whistles including HomeKit integration (via August), touch keypad, guest accounts, no key access, etc. Since then, I’ve had nothing but troubles with this lock which mostly was how fast the batteries would drain. The 4 AA batteries lasted between 7 and 21 days and more times than not, the door would be unlocked with dead batteries. When I was only parking in the garage, and not entering/exiting through the front door, this really didn’t impact me. At one point about year ago, I contacted Yale about the battery draining issue, and they sent me a new lock. The replacement lock didn’t help the issue and I was back to always having dead batteries.

Frustrated by this and using the front door more than ever, I set out to fix the problem. The latest and greatest technology for smart locks involves a new wireless standard called Thread but also a way to a better way unlock the door with your phone called Apple home key. The only available lock with this technology is the Schlage Encode Plus. Of course this lock cannot be found in stock anywhere and is not available to order (it’s also ugly). I needed a solution I could implement now and not wait for something to be manufactured.

I decided I would try a similar lock to the Yale Assure SL but had Google/Nest as the integration/backend. I went to my local Best Buy and picked up the Nest x Yale – Smart Lock with Nest Connect. The install and most of the parts were similar to my outgoing Yale lock so that made install a breeze. Setting up the lock in the Nest app was very easy and I was up and running within minutes, unlike the August implementation.

Door sensor with custom 3D printer bumper.

A couple of missing features that I was accustomed to on my previous lock were auto-unlock and a door sensor to detect if the the actual door was ajar or not. The August integration of the previous lock used your phone’s GPS to determine when you left or arrived your home, then lock or unlock your door. The idea behind this was great, but regularly failed. When the lock had battery power, upon arriving home, my door wouldn’t be unlocked. Due to the nature of Bluetooth and WiFi, my phone would also struggle to unlock the door, standing directly outside of it. That being stated, I was motivated to get these two features back, in another way.

The door sensor was pretty easy. I already have an Aqara Zigbee hub on my network so I can easily add their cheap sensors. I purchased a Aqara Door & Window Sensor and added it to my network and Apple Home. The sensor has two parts, one that goes on the moving object, in this case the front door, and the other piece goes on the static object, the interior wall. When the two pieces get close enough for a magnetic attraction, the sensor detects that it is closed. Upon installing the two sides on my door, I realized the door-side sensor was too far from the other sensor when closed. After a couple hours, I designed a 3D printed extension for the sensor, and now it lines up perfectly.

Next I had to tackle the auto-unlock feature. The Nest lock does have an auto-lock function, but it’s only time based. Once the door is unlocked, it will auto-lock in 15 minutes, or a preset time duration of your choosing. It doesn’t know if the door is open or closed, so if you leave the door open, it will still lock.

Previous to getting this lock, I purchased a Starling Home Hub that smartly integrates (almost) all Nest products into Apple Homekit. This is a much better solution than running a Nest plugin in Homebridge, plus you get a few extra features. When I added the new lock to my Nest account Starling Home automatically added it to Apple Home and I was able to control it immediately. This led me to using Apple Home and Apple Shortcuts to achieve my auto locking and unlocking goals.

First, I had to setup a plugin in Homebridge to allow me to have a dummy switch (read about why here). After that, I setup another dummy-type switch in Homebridge that triggers on a set time duration. This allowed me to constantly check if the door was open or closed, then act on it. All of this is done in Apple’s Home app with their built-in automation. It allows you to trigger actions based on your phone’s location, which is perfect for when I leave or arrive at home.

Name: ”AutoUnlock”
{
     Condition: ”When I arrive home”,
     Action: ”Trigger $DummySwitch”
}
Name: ”DummySwitch”
{
     Condition: ”When $DummySwitch turns on”,
     Action: ”Unlock $FrontDoor”
}

This unlocks my front door when my phone detects that I’m within range of my house. This usually happens as I’m pulling into the driveway.

Name: ”AutoLock”
{
     Condition: ”When I leave home”,
     Action: ”Trigger $DoorChecker”
}
Name: ”DoorChecker”
{
     Condition: ”When DoorChecker turns on”,
     Action: ”Run Shortcut”
          {
               If ($DoorSensor = ‘Closed’) {
                    Lock $FrontDoor
               }
     }
}

This locks my door when my phone detects that I’m out of range of my house. The DoorChecker automation also checks if the door is open/closed. If it’s open, it will not lock the door. In addition to when I leave my house, the DoorChecker automation runs every 15 minutes to ensure my door is always locked when closed.

Check out my other Smarter Home posts!

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.

Read more

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.

Product Review: Longvadon Watch Band

The holidays are over now, sadly, but you may be enjoying some nice holiday gifts. One of the most popular gifts this year is the critically acclaimed Apple Watch. Most new Apple Watches come with one band included, but one of the great features of the watch is that you can swap bands easier than you change your undergarments. That allows you to customize your look and find something that suits you. Apple sells a small variety of bands, but those are very expensive and leaves a lot to be desired.

If you’re like me and want a lot of variety in your choices of wrist wear, you collect different bands. I’ve tried a bunch of different ones and I have one to suggest to you today.

“Longvadon was founded by two French brothers with a passion for watches and style. It all started when one of the brothers, Robin, was sitting in a cab with a friend who’d just bought the Apple Watch and was complaining about how he just couldn’t find a really good looking, classy, quality strap for his watch after looking everywhere online. It was all either cheap knockoffs or the few extremely expensive options offered by Apple and its partners.”

The Longvadon Story

This is my second Longvadon strap, my first was featured in my Apple Watch review. I’m currently using the Men’s Classic Navy Blue Leather band as my daily driver. My favorite feature is the clasp. On the outside it looks like a traditional watch band buckle that sometimes can be tricky to put on and take off. Underneath the buckle is a butterfly style clasp that you may find on all-metal watch bands. With the press of a button you can easily slide this off your wrist when you need to charge and then put it back on with low effort.

Having tried other leather watch bands, I find the finish on the Longvadon band very comfortable and durable. With the clasp design you don’t have the normal wear and tear on the buckle that comes with a traditional style. The lugs, or where the watch band attaches to the watch, sometimes don’t fit right or slide around, unlike the Apple branded straps. The Longvadon band clicks in and stays put like it should. You can tell attention was paid to the details and fit on this band.

Longvadon is an easy company to order from. They use a secure payment processing system that even allows you to pay via PayPal, Apple Pay, or Amazon Pay. I prefer to use Apple Pay on the web where I can to ensure my transaction and information is secure.

If you’re looking for a band that both be a comfortable everyday band, but also class up your look when you want, give the Longvadon collections a look.

If you’re interested in getting your own Longvadon Apple Watch band, use this link to make your purchase.

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

Beard Blog Tech Reviews: Apple HomePod

The gadget you don’t need until you have one

HomePod: The iPod that lives in your home

HomePod

The latest product from tech giant Apple is their own take on the very popular “lady in a cylinder”. The HomePod aims to fill the gap where the competition lacks in areas such as sound quality, ease of use, and aesthetics. I’ve spent the last month with the HomePod, testing everything I could.

It Packs a Punch

The Apple HomePod is a small cylindrical device that is about the size of a two liter soda bottle, with the top cut off. It’s covered in a thick mesh that feels soft but also sturdy at the same time. Inside, the HomePod packs a large upward facing subwoofer and seven tweeters around the bottom circumference. In between those there is a six microphone array for hearing your voice as well as to fine tune the sound based on the surroundings. The speakers and microphones are controlled by a stripped-down version of the fourth generation Apple TV. The processing power allows you to shout anything at it and it responds very quickly. 

High Fidelity

I don’t consider myself an audiophile, but I enjoy high quality music when I can get it. When I listen to music over bluetooth in my car I can hear the lower quality compared to playing over USB. That’s about the extent of my sound quality identifying experience. The HomePod does a great job of producing great sound in a small package. It sits next to my forty-eight inch, nine speaker sound bar, and the HomePod has noticeably better sound. [perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The music stopped and I thought “there’s no way she heard that.”[/perfectpullquote]The sound output fills my living room with high fidelity music so well that you would think I have a 7.1 surround sound system setup.

Apple’s Music

The HomePod only knows one music service and that’s Apple’s own Apple Music. That means the HomePod cannot play music from Spotify, Tidal, Google, or any other music service out there. You can play songs from Apple’s giant library, your own iTunes library, or songs you’ve previously purchased from iTunes, so there is a lot of variety. If that is not enough for you, you can still stream whatever you like from an iOS device to the speaker, just like you AirPlay to an Apple TV. The benefit of using Apple Music on the HomePod is you don’t need your iPhone or iPad to play it. In fact, if you turned off all your devices, it will still be able to play music from Apple’s streaming service. If you’re thinking of getting a HomePod, switching to or signing up for Apple Music is definitely worth it.

Hey Siri

Beyond playing great music, the HomePod packs the same helpful assistant as iPhones and iPads. Her name is Siri and she is very willing to help you any way she can. The HomePod doesn’t have a screen or a way for you to interact with anything, so Siri is limited. Speaking “Hey Siri…” into the air turns her attention towards you as she hangs on your next words. I’ve had moderate success with asking Siri random questions. I’ve been using Siri for a long time so I know how to ask her things and what she can and can’t do. Here are some things I asked my HomePod that resulted in the correct answer on the first try: What is 60g in oz?; What is the scientific name for a sloth?; How many tablespoons are in 20oz?; Who is Michael B. Jordan?; Who sings purple rain?

Contrary to your iPhone, Siri on the HomePod doesn’t know who you are. Whomever sets up the HomePod initially can choose to allow some details to be passed through the Apple account, but it’s still very limited. The nice thing about this is anyone that can yell “Hey Siri!” can control the HomePod. This can also cause some disagreements between people who want to hear two different songs.[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]One of my favorite HomePod activities is when I wake up with a random song in my head, I can shout out loud and have it played[/perfectpullquote]

One place where the HomePod excels over the competition is how well it can hear you. Even at whisper with music playing the HomePod picks up the “Hey Siri” command. I was in my kitchen cooking with the exhaust fan on, the HomePod was about twenty feet away with a wall between us. The HomePod was playing something from Apple Music when I said “Hey Siri skip” at a volume that a person next to me would struggle to hear. The music stopped and I thought “there’s no way she heard that.” The next song began to play and I was taken aback by how well it could hear my over all the noise.

The Kit of Home

Another way Siri on the HomePod is helpful is by controlling HomeKit devices. These are smart home devices that are compatible with Apple’s home ecosystem. I have structured the smart devices in my home around this ecosystem allowing me to take full advantage of Siri for automation and control. By shouting at the HomePod I can close my garage doors, turn up the heat, turn on/off lights, and trigger scenes I have setup. homepod The HomePod also acts as a HomeKit bridge that allows you to (if you don’t already have an Apple TV) access your HomeKit devices from outside your home network. 

Who should buy one?

If you’re deeply invested in Apple’s ecosystem (which is easy to do) with a subscription to Apple Music, HomeKit compatible devices (Philips Hue bulbs fit this bill), like listening to music in your home, and use an iOS device; the HomePod is definitely for you.

It’s going to be hard to find a lot of people that meet those criteria, which is Apple’s fault, but at the same time it helps get more people into their ecosystem.

One of my favorite HomePod activities is when I wake up with a random song in my head (which happens almost every morning) I can shout out loud and have it played, and it sounds great!

Measuring the Competition

Apple is late to the “lady in a can” game, which seems to be their modus operandi as of late. There is plenty of competition in this space and surprisingly the first mover here was Amazon with their Echo line. Amazon has released nine products with their Alexa assistant before the HomePod shipped. Google now has three different types of devices that use the Google Assistant for your home. Amazon, Google and Apple’s devices all have the same functions; play music, control smart devices, and try to answer your dimwitted questions.

Which one is the best? That’s a hard question to answer for everyone, and each person you ask might have a different answer. The best one for you is which system you’re invested in. Do you have Apple products throughout your home or are you more in the Google ecosystem? Amazon has the advantage of being the cheaper solution and throwing their products at consumers every way possible. It’s more likely you know someone with an Amazon product in their house than the other two.

HomePod

Apple’s HomePod is another great first generation product. A lot of people are comparing it to the the original Apple Watch, which is fair. Both of those devices are late entries to a new market for Apple and so far, both have been received very well. My time with the HomePod has been great and I don’t regret the purchase at all. I’m looking forward to the near future where Apple makes smaller/cheaper versions of the HomePod that I can stick in various places in my house.

In summary, John Gruber put it best when he wrote, “What AirPods are for your own ears, HomePod is for your home.”.

 

Read more of my tech reviews here!

Apple iPhone X Beard Blog Review

The iPhone of the future, today!

iPhone x

Apple’s new flagship iPhone has been on sale for almost three weeks and you can’t go anywhere without hearing about it. The iPhone X (pronounced ”iPhone ten”) is the biggest change we’ve seen to the iPhone in a really long time. It’s also the first iPhone since the original where people were excited to see it and asked me how I liked it. It’s a lot like when I first started wearing my original Apple Watch, but a lot more people know about the iPhone X. The following review will be my opinion of the new iPhone, not so much the technical attributes it posses. Furthermore if you’re curious about the technical stuff check out Apple.com.

Screen

The first thing you notice on the new iPhone X is the screen. It’s big, bright, and very colorful. The screen goes from top to bottom and left to right covering the entire top side of the phone. This new OLED screen is my favorite part of the iPhone X. All the colors are vibrant and the black levels are so dark you can’t tell where the screen starts and stops. As a result this makes the iPhone X screen very pleasing to the eye.

iPhone X 7 plus
iPhone 7 Plus (left) iPhone X (right)

When the screen is fully lit up you can see a tiny notch at the top of the screen where the earpiece is. This notch holds all the fancy iPhone X sensors that I’ll get to in the next section. The screen itself actually flows under this notch so anything that would be shown the in the notch section of the screen will be hidden. In photos, reviews, and talking about it the notch seems like a bigger deal than it actually is. After a day of using the iPhone X the notch becomes unnoticeable and unobtrusive. Most of all, this notched screen design will become one of the most iconic phone designs we’ll ever see.

Face ID

Gone are the days of using your unique fingerprint to unlock your iPhone. Now the iPhone X comes with Face ID (replacing Touch ID) as the biometric authentication process. To put it simple, Face ID uses the features of your face to unlock your phone. This process works in the dark, in the sunlight, and most noteworthy even when you’re wearing sunglasses.

My experience with Face ID has been fantastic. My iPhone unlocks more reliably than when I used Touch ID on my iPhone 7 Plus. There are a couple instances where Face ID doesn’t work, but they are very minimal and easy to live with.

iphone x trudepth
TruDepth Camera system

Consequently the iPhone X doesn’t like my Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses so I have to slide them down to unlock my phone when wearing those. In contrast, My aviator-style Ray-Ban sunglasses work just fine.

Face ID is definitely the future and it can only get better from here. I was skeptical at first, just like I was before trying Touch ID, because all the previous face detection systems were utter garbage. Face ID has lived up to Apple’s marketing and I can’t wait to have Face ID on all the products I use.

Cameras

As an amateur photographer my smartphone camera is very important to me. The iPhone is not my only camera but I like to take a lot of photos with it because it’s smaller, lighter, and always with me unlike my Nikon DSLR. Last year I was excited by the new dual rear cameras on the iPhone 7 Plus. The added “telephoto” camera is very versatile and is even better on the iPhone X. The new cameras work very well in low light and the image is very clear. Previous iPhones seem to have a small increase in camera ability, but the fact that both cameras work identically at two different focal lengths is a huge leap over previous generations.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”It looks pretty, it feels great, and is a blast to use.”[/perfectpullquote]

The front camera hasn’t been changed, but it’s been supplemented by the new TruDepth Camera sensors which include infrared and depth sensors. The iPhone X’s front camera takes the same photos as the iPhone 7 but you now get depth mapping which adds the ability to take Portrait Mode photos. This still evolving feature is fun and looks cool, but it’s not a game changer. As a result I’d take the real depth of field on my DSLR any day.

Animojis

The iPhone X’s front facing TruDepth Camera system isn’t just for photos, Animoji is Apple’s way of putting you facial expressions on your favorite emoji characters. This is probably the killer feature of the iPhone X.

iphone-x-animoji
Panda Animoji

Being able to send someone a short video of your expressions and voice is endless fun and entertainment. This is one of the few areas Apple has been an innovator and I would bet it pays off big now and in the future.

Pros / Cons

The iPhone X isn’t perfect, but at the same time, it’s a huge leap forward for tech nerds like myself.

Pros

  • Great rear dual camera system
  • OLED screen is stunning in person
  • Face ID is more secure and easier to use

Cons

  • No home button; New interface could be confusing to some
  • Battery life is slightly worse than my iPhone 7 Plus, but still lasts all day
  • Front camera resolution could be better


Who should buy the iPhone X?
Apple fans who want the latest tech, photographers wanting the best
smartphone cameras, and techie people who like being on the cutting edge.

Who shouldn’t buy the iPhone X?
Users who want the same old iPhone interface, people who don’t want the latest technology, or folks who are afraid of the price.

The price of greatness

Let’s talk about price for a moment. All you read on the internet, hear on the news, and talk about at work is how this iPhone costs $1000+. While that is true, it’s not that big of a deal. Now let’s break it down a little bit.

Here are the costs of the current iPhone offerings and storage capacity respectively:

  • iPhone 8 (64GB/128GB) ———— $699/$849 or $35$41 per month
  • iPhone 8 Plus (64GB/256GB) —- $799/$949 or $40/46 per month
  • iPhone X (64GB/128GB) ———— $999/$1149 or $50/$56 per month

You can see the new iPhones range from $699 up to $1149. The iPhone X is not some outrageously priced hunk of junk. It’s worth the premium over the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. It comes down to if you can afford it or justify to yourself that you want to buy the iPhone X.iphone-x-2

Most buyers will be financing this phone through carriers or Apple. Not many people will be shelling out cash for any of these iPhones. Also for even further comparison the top of the line Samsung Galaxy Note 8 costs $950.

In conclusion, the iPhone X is the future of what we’ll expect to see over the next few years and it’s going to be great. After three years of the same stagnant design Apple hit it out the park with the iPhone X. It looks pretty, it feels great, and is a blast to use.

Will you turn on this new iPhone feature?

This fall Apple will be releasing a new feature for your iPhone that could save your life!

Do Not Disturb… While Driving!

A new feature included with the upcoming release of iOS 11 will put your iPhone into Do Not Disturb mode while you are driving in your car. If you are not familiar with Apple’s Do Not Disturb mode, it suppresses all notifications and sounds while enabled. This is especially useful while you sleep if you keep your iPhone near you all night long. The kicker for the driving mode is when you get an iMessage it will reply to that person with a customizable message describing how you are driving and not getting notifications. If for some reason this person needs to reach you, they can reply URGENT to the automated message and their original message will be sent through. You can even set a contact list of people who get right through to you, bypassing Do Not Disturb. Of course this is all fine until you want to use your iPhone while you’re in the car. When you go to unlock your iPhone while Do Not Disturb is on you’ll see a pop-up on your screen letting you know this mode is turned on. You’ll need to tap I’m Not Driving to let your iPhone know that it’s safe to turn off Do Not Disturb mode. This is just another step Apple is taking to ensure your are driving safely.

dnd

You should turn this on.

The number of cell phone related car accidents is on the rise and while we wait for autonomous cars, this is a great step to lower the number of incidents. This can also be a way for some people to break the awful habit of having to look at their phones every second of the day. Your eyes and mind should be focused on the road and other drivers, not your SnapChat or Instagram feed. I’m hoping Apple puts out a huge ad campaign around this feature so that more people will use it. I wouldn’t go as far to say that Apple should turn this on by default, but it definitely deserves some attention.

Ive been testing this mode for about a month now and it has been great. I’ve been guilty of checking my notifications, sending messages, and browsing social media in traffic or at a stoplight. I’m ready to kick that habit and Apple’s new Do Not Disturb while Driving is a great feature

The Apple Watch : A Retrospective

On April 25, 2015, I received my first generation Apple Watch Sport and Apple Watch. You can read my original review here, where I talk about moving away from traditional watches and a Fitbit. Now, a year later I still have my same Apple Watch, and a whole new love for it.

Over the last 12 months, I have worn my Apple Watch 99% of the time I was awake. There may have been a day or two I forgot to put it on or did not charge it. After so long, it now becomes habit to want to check my wrist for messages, activity, and weather. At it’s core, which is receiving iPhone notifications, telling the time and showing me on-demand information on the watch face, the Apple Watch is a necessary device for my lifestyle.

Between my wife and I, we accumulated a good collection of sport bands in various colors to keep the look fresh. One of the joys of the Apple Watch is changing the band every morning to better match my clothing choice for the day.

I’ll admit that I don’t use the Apple Watch to it’s full technological extent. Third-party apps, different faces, and glances have all become secondary features. The watch is now more of an appliance in my life and a fashion accessory. That’s more than I can say for my iPhone which is somewhat an appliance, but more an entertainment device.

After a year, what I use my Apple Watch for is very simple:

  • Telling time (like a traditional watch)
  • Keeping track of time (alarms, timers, etc.)
  • Checking the weather (watch face complication)
  • Tracking activity (workouts, steps, standing, etc.)
  • Getting alerts from my iPhone (iMessages, emails, etc.)

That’s about it. Can’t imagine what my day would be like without it.

As Apple said, this is a very personal device indeed.

 

Beard Blog Review: Philips Hue

On my previous post I talked about smart home items and how they are the next big thing. Because I don’t like being left behind, I went ahead an purchased a set of Philips Hue lights. These are internet-connected LED light bulbs that contain 3 different color LEDs inside so that they can produce thousands of different colors. As I’ll explain after the break, using the bulbs together to create a scene is a lot better than using the bulbs alone.

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