Apple Vision Pro: First Impressions

Vision Pro

I recently had the opportunity to demo the new Apple Vision Pro at my local Apple Store, and I have many thoughts. Even though I was intrigued by the product, I decided not to be an early adopter and pre-order sight unseen, mainly due to the high cost. Up until about a year ago, I was skeptical about the idea of VR as a consumer device, but after reviewing the PS VR2, I was sold on the concept. Apple usually waits until they can make a big splash in a market segment before entering it, so I thought the Vision Pro would be the pinnacle of VR as we know it.

What is Apple Vision Pro?

Apple markets Vision Pro as the first spatial computing device, intentionally avoiding categorizing it as either a VR (Virtual Reality) or AR (Augmented Reality) system. Following my experience with the headset, I would categorize it more as an entertainment device.

What Can Apple Vision Pro Do?

Though not a complete computer, Vision Pro currently shares similarities with an iPad. It has the capability to run compatible iPad apps from the App Store, and developers can also create dedicated visionOS apps exclusively for Vision Pro. The iPad apps functioning on Vision Pro appear as flat windowed instances, similar to Safari. The advantage lies in the flexibility to arrange them within your “space” as desired, deviating from the confinement of one or two on the iPad screen.

Vision Pro

What Can’t Apple Vision Pro Do?

One notable limitation of Vision Pro is its inability to play VR games akin to those found on Meta Quest or PS VR2. While it’s plausible that similar or ported games may become available for Vision Pro in the future, there are currently none at its launch. It’s crucial to note that Vision Pro is not marketed as a gaming system, and purchasing it with that intention would be a waste of money and technology.

The Demo

Upon my arrival at the Apple Store at the scheduled time, an Apple specialist guided me through the process. Initially, he handed me an iPhone for a face and head measurement, similar to the Face ID setup. This measurement determined the appropriate size for the light shield of Vision Pro. Shortly after, another Apple employee presented a tray with a headset equipped with a pre-fitted light shield, along with a battery and cable. Something I found funny was the replaceable light shield had a mesh cloth protector on it, presumably to keep face grease from spreading person to person.

The Apple specialist then followed a scripted guide, instructing me on the precise placement of my hands on the headset and the correct method of putting it on my head. Surprisingly, the entire process took about 10 minutes. I anticipated a lengthier experience, but it seems I got all I needed during the brief period I spent in the goggles.

What I Liked

  • The overall feel of the device is much more premium and meticulously crafted than any of the other plastic headsets I’ve seen.
  • The internal screens you peer into surpass those of the PS VR2, a headset I’ve used extensively. This distinction is evident at first glance.
  • The software appears exceptionally refined, with ubiquitous Apple touches suggesting a thoughtful development tailored for mixed reality.
  • Spatial videos are a killer feature, reminiscent of how Live Photos changed the way I experience my photos. I intend to intentionally capture Spatial Videos with my iPhone, anticipating the possibility of enjoying them on Vision Pro in the future.
  • Panorama photos that you have taken in the past can be displayed as somewhat immersive photos that allow you to see the full perspective of the image.
  • Immersive videos (currently only produced by Apple as a demo) are definitely a look at the way we’ll consume media in the future. Whether this is live music performances, sporting events, or nature videos.
  • The Speaker Pods project sound downward toward your ears without entering them, unlike AirPods, are excellent. I wish Apple would develop a set of AirPods capable of replicating this design.

What Surprised Me

  • The overall weight of the headset was not an issue. It was a lot lighter than I initially thought after reading reviewers complain about the weight on their face.
  • The comfortability was beyond my expectation, again after reading reviews of the default head strap. It was much more comfortable and easy to wear compared to my PS VR2.
  • I didn’t finish the demo and immediately want to drop thousands of dollars on Vision Pro.
  • The eye tracking is good, but nothing revolutionary.

What I Didn’t Like

  • While the internal screens are very good, it’s immediately apparent that you’re looking at screens through a camera, rather than at the real world.
    Open the camera app on your phone and view your room on the display through the camera. That’s what it’s like inside the goggles, but even a little worse.
  • There were several times my hand gestures didn’t work correctly or even register with Vision Pro. About 25% of the time, it did not recognize my two-finger tap to signal an input.
  • The field of view, or lack of, is noticeable. So when you’re inside Vision Pro there are visible areas of your peripheral not engulfed in screen. Not dissimilar to wearing ski goggles.
  • The disparity between wearing the headset and utilizing the passthrough view within the well-lit Apple Store and removing the headset to see through my own eyes was significant. The existing cameras and screens struggle to capture the full spectrum of light and color in the real world.
  • My face was measured to get the correct light seal size, but I did have some light bleed into the goggles. I’m not sure if this is normal, my size was incorrect, or they didn’t have the exact size I needed in store.
  • The demo was too short. I would have liked more time to explore Vision Pro.

Final Thoughts

The Apple Vision Pro is impressive, and I’m excited about the direction the technology is taking. In a few years, I anticipate it becoming as ubiquitous as AirPods. While I’ll be observing from the sidelines for this initial generation, I eagerly await any chance to revisit the device. When Apple decides to release a second-generation Vision Pro with significant upgrades, I’ll be among the first to place an order.

Today I saved at least $3500!

Apple Watch Ultra 2 – Beard Blog Review

Apple Watch Ultra 1.5

What’s New With Apple Watch Ultra 2

The latest Apple Watch Ultra introduces an all-new System-in-a-Package (SIP) called the S9, marking the first significant update in this department since the Series 6 back in 2019.
One notable improvement is the on-device Siri processing, which ensures quicker responses as your requests no longer need to travel to the internet and back.
The screen is now brighter, peaking at 3,000 nits, a significant 1,000 nits brighter than the original Apple Watch Ultra, marking a 300% increase compared to previous non-ultra models (excluding the first-generation).

“This feature may come across as a somewhat hastily added novelty to drive new watch sales.”

A new double-tap gesture offers the convenience of controlling various aspects of the Watch interface with just one hand. However, in my testing experience, I found it somewhat lacking. While the double tap registers successfully 90% of the time, it often makes assumptions about the function you intend to perform. For instance, if you wish to decline a call using the double tap, it might mistakenly answer the call, and there’s no way to customize this behavior. Moreover, when reading a notification, such as an iMessage, the one-handed operation doesn’t allow for scrolling, making it challenging to double tap to reply without knowing the full message content. This feature may come across as a somewhat hastily added novelty to drive new watch sales.

New things that don’t matter: 2nd-generation Ultra Wideband chip, double the storage capacity (64GB), and that’s it.

The new Modular Ultra face

In a side-by-side visual comparison of the Apple Watch Ultra and Ultra 2, I observed no discernible physical distinctions. Even the text engraved on the underside of both models simply reads “Apple Watch Ultra.”

In essence, this doesn’t appear to be a true second-generation product. Instead, it resembles more of a minor enhancement to the original, especially given that Apple no longer offers the original Apple Watch Ultra for purchase, exclusively offering the Ultra 2.

The Good

  • All new SIP that’s noticeably faster
  • Brighter screen for direct sunlight viewing
  • Siri is much faster to process and understand queries

Missed Opportunities

  • Headlining double tap feature is extremely limited
  • It seems the SIP improvements were focused on neural engine and brighter screen, not battery life
  • No visual indication you have the new hotness
  • Same case and screen size

The Bad

  • Software still not fully taking advantage of the Ultra’s screen
  • Watch faces lack variety. Only one new watch face for the Ultra
  • Apps are still mostly useless on the watch
8.0 / 10

How can the Apple Watch Ultra get to 10/10?
– Better software to utilize the screen size.
– Allow Night Mode on any watch face
– Custom watch faces
– Make better use of the all new SIP
– Ability to customize the gestures

Last year in my Apple Watch Ultra review I outlined who the Ultra watch is for. Apple seems to have leaned into that by not making many changes on the second generation. It sold well so they want to keep that up and have this be the top-tier Apple Watch for all walks of life.

Should You Upgrade?

If you are already the proud owner of an Apple Watch Ultra (first-generation) there is no need to upgrade. There is nothing in this year’s model that makes it worth it. Wait for the possible third generation in 2024. If you were on the fence last year about getting an Apple Watch Ultra, this is the watch for you. Everything about the first generation remains in the Ultra 2 with some nice enhancements. This is the ultimate Apple Watch, no matter if you run marathons, SCUBA dive, or like me and just wear it to the mall.

Read more Beard Blog tech reviews

Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max: The Beard Blog Review

iPhone 15 PM

It’s no surprise that Apple releases new iPhones in the fall every year, and this September is no different. Apple held an event on September 13th 2023 to announce four new iPhones and two new Apple Watches. All models were available to purchase starting on September 22nd. I again upgraded to the iPhone 15 Pro Max. Read about my thoughts on the 17th flagship iPhone.

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iPhone 14: One Year Later

It’s been about a year since I received my iPhone 14 Pro Max and published my review. Normally I don’t revisit these as I’m looking forward to a new iPhone in the fall. This year I wanted to highlight my experiences with my iPhone 14. It could be too early to tell, but this may be the best iPhone I’ve ever owned. That of course comes with some concessions as it’s not perfect.

iPhone 14 Pro Max

Durability

The iPhone 14 Pro Max is the most durable iPhone I’ve ever owned. It may be one of the most durable pieces of technology I’ve ever used. I normally don’t use a case, and this year my iPhone didn’t spend a single minute in any protection. The first few months, I babied the device, but after the first drop, that quickly faded. Now, on average, I drop my phone on a hard surface five times a week. In the past, by the summer, my iPhone is so beat up that I need to get it replaced with AppleCare. This year is an exception. Not only do I not need to get it replaced, but there is barely a mark anywhere on it. The most noticeable blemishes are on the screen and around the stainless steel edge. About six months ago, I noticed a deep scratch about one inch long in the middle of my screen. I have no idea where it came from, but I’ve lived with it since. As I mentioned before, I drop it a lot. I’ve even dropped it on concrete from waist-high and cringed as I bent over to pick it up, expecting to reveal a spiderweb of glass on the front. Time and time again, it comes out unscathed

The Dynamic Island

Not quite a gimmick, but not really a useful feature. The Dynamic Island debuted as the coolest way to date to blend the front camera into the screen. In practice, it kind of just faded and became more of a button to get to music playing or a progress bar for when something is uploading. I still like it, but I’m hopeful it gets better in the next iterations before it’s replaced by under-screen cameras and sensors.

Always On Display

Probably the biggest functional difference in the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max is the always-on display. I’ve heard that some people turn it off to save battery life, but in my (and others) testing, it does not have a significant impact on daily battery life. At first, it was somewhat odd to look over at your iPhone on the table and see a full-color display lit up, but I quickly got used to it. Now it serves as a way for me to glance at the time, widgets, and what’s currently playing. I love how Apple engineered the display and software to not just go monochrome like some other phones, but also preserve your wallpaper while giving you the choice to turn it off. Once again, the long wait was worth it.

Not So Great Points

  • The cameras are fine, but I’m ready for a major upgrade.
  • One thing I noted in my review last year was the focus distance of the main camera, especially when scanning barcodes. This was a pain point all year and I believe Apple will fix that on the next iPhone.
  • Battery life has also been just fine. It seems like this phone’s battery is degrading faster than previous ones.
  • The Pro colors are boring, but I don’t see Apple changing this anytime soon.

Pour one out for Lightning

The iPhone 14, 14 Plus, 14 Pro, and 14 Pro Max may likely be the last iPhones with the Lightning connector. While it’s over 10 years old, the Lightning connector is one of the best port innovations we’ve seen in a long time. Some may forget that Apple was part of the consortium that helped develop USB-C, so it was loosely based on Lightning. In a physical connector sense, Lightning is better than USB-C because the complicated and fragile bits are on the inside of the device, whereas USB-C exposes them on the cable side. It was a big deal when Lightning launched on the iPhone 5 in 2012, and it’s still in use on a lot of products today. Let’s pour one out for the previous best charging solution and the originator of the reversible charging cable.

iPhone 14 to 15

The iPhone 14 Pro Max is a great device and while it may be the best iPhone I’ve ever used, there is always the newest one to take that title. I probably won’t think about the 14 again after this, but it remains a favorite in my book. The next iPhone is rumored to be named the iPhone 15, in numerical order after the current iPhone 14. If all goes well, you will soon be reading my review of the next iPhone right here on Beard Blog.

Sony PlayStation VR2 Review

PSVR2 Hero Image

What is VR?

Virtual Reality (VR) has been around since the 1970s, but only recently has it become easily accessible by consumers. In the 2020s we’ve been hearing a lot of VR and AR (Augmented Reality) platforms being developed and released to not much fanfare. Recently Meta (Facebook) unveiled their plan to go all-in on VR/AR proclaiming the Metaverse. The latest VR headset to go on sale is the gaming offering from PlayStation. Read on for my thoughts on this new gaming peripheral and my first experience with the VR2.

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The Steam Deck Review

The Steam Deck, not to be confused with the Stream Deck, is a handheld gaming “console” that isn’t from Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo. Valve, the company behind Half-Life, Portal, and Steam, made a portable computer you can play games on.

Back in my day, PC gaming was a never-ending money pit of hardware upgrades as new games push the limits of graphics cards. This vicious cycle led me to primarily be a console gamer, mostly focusing on Sony’s Playstation. I was intrigued when Valve announced the Steam Deck, but like most others, skeptical of the performance a portable PC can achieve. Earlier this year I pre-ordered a Steam Deck, but after reviews said it’s not ready yet, I pulled my order. Meanwhile, Valve worked hard on software updates and getting units shipped, so I gave it time to percolate. Revisiting tech reviews, Reddit first-hand accounts, and six months of improvements, I was ready to give it a go.

Steam Deck vs PS5 Controller

Prior to fall 2022, Valve had long wait times to get your hands on a Steam Deck, much like the almost two-year-old next-gen consoles. Apparently I waited until the right time as my pre-order was only in for a few days before I was able to actually order a console. Within about 10 days, it was delivered to my home and I was full steam ahead.

The first thing I did was look at my sad Steam library and figure out how to play games. After exploring SteamOS a bit, I went directly to Reddit to aid in my fun. The Steam Deck community was alive and well and has all the resources I needed to learn about Steam games, emulation, and playing non-Steam games on my brand new Steam Deck.

The Good

  • While a huge device, it’s comfortable to hold and not heavy
  • Great software and familiar if you know Linux
  • So many buttons
  • Speakers sound good for how small they are
  • Right to Repair friendly

Missed Opportunities

  • The screen could be better on a device released in 2022
  • Base model storage is slow and tiny
  • No built-in cellular options
  • Feels kind of locked to SteamOS

The Bad

  • Battery life is very low, especially on newer games
  • No native way to run Windows
  • Runs hot and has an exhaust port
  • Not a Nintendo Switch competitor

The Steam Deck is a full-fledged gaming computer, that (almost) fits in your hands. For me, it wouldn’t replace a Nintendo Switch or gaming on an iPhone. The Steam Deck is targeted at the PC gaming market in an effort to take those games on the go. What Valve may not have realized, is they have a tinkerer’s dream on their hands. Giving a technically inclined person a powerful computer they can take with them on an Airplane is great opportunity in a small package.

Steam Deck in dock mode

What you CAN do with the Steam Deck:
– Play most games available on Steam
– Install and use most apps available to Linux distros
– Emulate retro gaming systems
– Emulate Nintendo Switch games
– Play Xbox Cloud games
– Use it as a real computer

What you CANNOT do with the Steam Deck:
– Play native Windows games without workarounds
– Run iOS or Android apps/games
– Easily play PC games not purchased through Steam
– Play games for more than six hours without charging
– Mirror wirelessly to a display or TV
– Natively play Xbox, PlayStation, or Nintendo games

 

Did you know?

Steam makes a dock for the Stream Deck to allow you to use it as a full desktop computer or connect to a TV for a Nintendo Switch-like experience.

Apple Watch Ultra: The Beard Blog Review

The ultraist Apple Watch of them all.

Watching the recent Apple event where the Apple Watch Ultra was announced, I was elated at the feature set, but at the same time dreading the price reveal. When Jeff Williams revealed the $799 price tag, my jaw dropped. This is not the normal Apple pricing we usually see. I was throwing around $999 or $1099 in my head trying to figure out how I could justify spending that much. Compared to a normal Apple Watch with cellular, sapphire screen, and titanium body, $799 isn’t that far off, but the Ultra does so much more!

I’ve been wearing an Apple Watch every day since buying the first-generation in April of 2015. It was a big change for me as I was an every day traditional watch wearer. I even had a small watch collection growing. Since the first time I put on an Apple Watch, I had wished for a bigger screen for my large wrists. Over the years we’ve seen the (biggest) Apple Watch go from 42mm to 44mm, and then last year to 45mm. The Ultra watch is a generous 49mm.

What’s New on Apple Watch Ultra?

Compared to the Series 7 of last year and the Series 8 introduced with the Ultra, it has a lot more adventurous features than your standard watch. While on the surface it may seem like a whole new watch from the ground up, it’s not. More of a case redesign, it still has the same trusty Apple Watch features we’ve grown to love over the years. What sets the Ultra watch apart from the other Apple Watches is the addition of a 86db siren, 2000 nit display, dual-frequency GPS, customizable action button, and water depth and temperature gauge. If you’re only interested in the health sensors, it has the same exact sensors as the Series 8. Some other improvements to existing features that the Ultra watch has are sure to come to the lower watches like louder speakers, bigger battery, and three mic array.

What Makes This Watch Ultra?

Apple tells us this watch isn’t for everyone, it’s for the most extreme, athletic, and adventurous people out there. We all know that the majority of customers for the Apple Watch Ultra will likely not fit into any of those categories, myself included. This isn’t the first time Apple has offered a titanium case watch with sapphire glass. Last year’s Series 7 was available in that configuration for $699. What truly makes this watch special is the size as it’s Apple’s largest watch to date. Additionally it can withstand the elements more, dive deeper, and possibly not get damaged as easily. My main reasons for buying the Apple Watch Ultra were the large screen size and long battery life, everything else is just a bonus.

Sensor Watch

The new sensor this year on both the Series 8 and Ultra is wrist temperature sensing. This takes a reading of the ambient under-screen temperature and your wrist temperature and forms an opinion on what your body may be like over the course of your sleep. This was presented as a benefit to Cycle Tracking, but for those who do not menstruate, this was left as an unknown. After wearing the Apple Watch to sleep, it does in fact record temperature readings in the Health app. If these will be accurate or useful in the long term remains to be seen.

Water temperature sensing only works when the watch is fully submerged. I was unable to get this to function whilst running my watch under a water faucet.

The Alpine Loop band looks and feels good, but it’s much harder to adjust and remove than any of the traditional Apple Watch bands.

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Apple iPhone 14 Pro Max: The Beard Blog Review

Here we are again, the fall weather is upon us and there are new iPhones out in the wild. Apple recently announced the iPhone 14, iPhone 14 Pro, and iPhone 14 Pro Max. Later this year the iPhone 14 will get a big brother named the iPhone 14 Plus. It’s easy to tell that Apple has a long term strategy with the iPhone. They meticulously add new features that seem like a big deal at first, but are actually very small improvements year over year. This allows them to continue to release a new phone every fall and get people (like me) to buy it.

What’s new on iPhone 14 Pro Max

The iPhone 14 Pro Max is a lot like the 13 Pro max and even the 12 Pro Max. Same shape, size, and materials. The biggest difference is the screen notch has been replaced by a rotated lowercase “i” shaped cutout called the Dynamic Island. I feel like this has a lot of potential in the future, but without any third-party app integration, it’s just a cool demo. The OLED screen has been updated to be brighter and be “Always-On” when not in use. This is similar to the Apple Watch where the screen dims but still shows some lock screen elements. I frequently have my iPhone sitting on a table in-front of me and now I won’t have to tap it to see what’s going on. Having devices where the screen is always-on is soon to become the norm. In the near future we’ll look at devices that don’t have the screen on as antiquated.

Baseball scores in the Dynamic Island

There’s a new main camera sensor (again) this year, but this time they quadrupled the megapixel count from 12 to 48. This doesn’t mean a whole lot, but allows it to gather more details and present you with a better image. I’ve found that when you want the most detail, use the “RAW” option to get a 48mp image as opposed to the Apple processed 12mp version.

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Smarter Home 2022: Curtains

Remote controlled curtains have been around for ages but only recently has that same technology been translated into a smart product. Much like blinds and shades, most of us have at least one set of curtains in our house and depending on where they’re located, you may want to automate them. Opening and closing of curtains can have an impact on both the climate and light in your home, but the primary function is to block nosey people from looking into your room.

The first time I learned about smart curtains was from SwitchBot who I believe was one of the first to market with a smart-assistant controlled curtain controller. Originally they were priced too high for what I wanted to spend, and like a bunch of other products, were only geared toward the Alexa/Amazon smart ecosystem. Even still as I write this today they don’t support Apple Home (fka Apple Homekit).

The smart curtain controller is simple. It rides along various types of curtain rods and rails and pushes or pulls your curtains. The drawback is that if you have two sets of curtains on a window, you need two controllers to push/pull each side. This doubles the cost as most controllers are sold in singles. The controller either connects to the track of your rail or rides along the rod like suspended roller coaster. There is also the compatibility of the type of rod or rail you have for your existing curtains. The compatibility varies from manufacturer and most can’t do a telescoping rod as the wheels can’t overcome the height differences.

When Aqara started selling their curtain controllers I was immediately interested. They’re product connected to my already existing Aqara camera hubs and that connected to Apple Home. They were discounted on Amazon during their initial launch so I thought I would give them a try, and if it wasn’t something I wanted or didn’t work right, I could return them. They arrived pretty quickly and while bulky, they were easy to install.

I have a bay window in my living room that lets in a lot of light throughout the first half of the day, but also faces the street I live on. This window has your traditional dual curtain rods with a shear set covered by an opaque set of curtains. Putting four controllers on each set of curtains wasn’t cost effective for this setup so I opted to buy two controllers for each side of the inner-most opaque curtains, while leaving the shears to manual adjustment.

The Aqara controllers work well and have yet to fail in the two months I’ve been using them. One odd thing about the Aqara models are that I needed to group them as one accessory in the Apple Home app to get the two controllers to work together. They’re exposed as left and right modules to Apple Home allowing you to operate them individually, but I have no use case for only opening one side. I have not yet needed to charge the batteries and as of writing this they currently sit at 80% so they should last about a year before needing charged.

Controlling them from the Apple Home app or by using Siri is very easy. Usually I just shout into the air, “Hey Siri, open the curtains” and within a second or two they start moving. I currently only have one automation set on the curtains and that is to close them in the evening. In the Apple Home app I have the automation set to: 15 minutes after sunset, close the curtains. This allows the most amount of light until the sun fades and then closes for privacy. In the winter months I can see having a schedule automation to open the curtains in the morning when heat is less of an issue.

While having smart curtain is great and convenient I don’t think it’s yet cost effective to have it on every set of curtains in your house. It’s nice on one or two, but there may be no need to automate curtains that are rarely changed or within easy reach. The smart curtain controllers are a great example of retrofitting smart objects on existing dumb things to make them better. Having a robot push or pull curtains open is a glimpse into the future of how tiny machines can make everyday items better.

Check out my other Smarter Home posts!

Smarter Home 2022: Blinds and Shades

blinds shades

The summer months offer a lot of natural light, but letting in the light comes with heat tradeoffs. There are ways you can automate blinds and shades to give you the natural light you need, when you need it, without having to touch your window dressings.

After working from home during the pandemic for a year and a half, I decided to upgrade my office blinds. The existing blinds where cellular shades that came with us in the move to this current house. They were fine, but I wanted something powered and better looking. Since I was looking at powered shades, I figured why not just get “smart” blinds too. The smart blind market is a premium one and I was immediately turned off when it starting getting pricing. Luckily Ikea exists to give us affordable options in the home decor space. I settled on the Fyrtur motorized roller shades in gray. Because of the size of my office window, I needed their largest offering of 122x195cm (48×76 3/4″). They fit the width perfectly, but are way too long, so I deal.

Ikea’s smart system links to their Tradfri hub to communicate with any of the major smart home ecosystems. When I purchased the blinds, the Tradfri Gateway was out of stock everywhere. As of this writing, Ikea has announced a new version coming in Fall of 2022. Obviously I bought the shades anyway thinking to myself “I bet I can get this working without the Ikea gateway”.

In a short amount of time I received the roller shades from Ikea and installed them above my office window. They have a very utilitarian aesthetic but do a great job of blocking the light. Black out shades were not something I needed, but it does work well. The motorized rolling shade was nice and the simple interface allowed me to set a lower limit so I could one-touch close them and not have them extend all the way to the floor. They came with a little handy remote that can open/close the shades without having to touch the large crossbar at the top. Funny thing about the remote is that the included wireless transceiver needs plugged into power for the remote to work. After searching again for the Ikea smart home gateway, I started the journey of making these dumb blinds smarter.

After some Reddit research I learned more about the Fyrtur blinds and that they communicate over the Zigbee wireless standard. This was great because I have a few Zigbee hubs in my house. First, my recent Aqara camera purchase has a Zigbee hub built in. A quick web search lets me know that the Aqara Zigbee hub is a closed system and only works with Aqara Zigbee accessories. Next, I went to my eero 6 pro wireless mesh system which also has Zigbee built-in. The eero Zigbee implementation is piggybacked on Amazon which means you can only add Zigbee items that work with Amazon/Alexa. The Ikea system does not work with Amazon. Lastly, I looked at some other ways I could get this connected by using a Homebridge plugin, my LG TV’s hub, or even “hacking” the smart system in the Ikea shades. No dice on either of those, so back to Reddit to get more answers. After posting about my predicament, someone recommended to me an open Zigbee hub that I can plug into my Homebridge Raspberry Pi via USB.

The USB Zigbee gateway that I purchased was the Conbee II. This is a pretty interesting project and the configuration is a little tricky. I made a walkthrough on how to get this working over here.

motorized shades gif
Motorized shades closing

My office shades were now connected to the Zigbee hub and I connected that to a Homebridge plugin which added the shades to Apple Home. Now that they were in my preferred smart home ecosystem, I could do some automations. When I start working at home, I have an automation that runs from my Stream Deck to start my day. I added opening my office blinds 35% to that script. Also, my ‘Good Night’ scene closes the blinds. As we get into the cooler weather with less light, I will add some more automations to close them with the setting sun.

Check out my other Smarter Home posts!

Toyota Tundra Infotainment Review

As a tech enthusiest and an information technology professional, I‘m always looking at technology first when looking at a vehicle. If I had to rank infotainment (what the industry calls the vehicle’s screen, software, and entertainment package) on a list of most important features it would definitely be in the top three. Not only am I a tech enthusiast, I’m also a car enthusiast so I’m always looking at what’s new in the car world. I’ve thought about buying several vehicles and decided against it only because of the technology implementation (looking at you Ford Explorer).

My current vehicle, 2022 Toyota Tundra Platinum, has the best technology package in a truck as of the time I bought it. Even better than the F-150 Lightning (which I’m still ”in line” to buy). The F-150 Lightning has the same infotainment as the non-electric F-150s with the exception of the added controls for the EV.

Ford Explorer ST Backup Camera View
Ford Explorer ST Backup Camera View

Here’s what is wrong with most of today’s in-vehicle technology:

  • Large screens with bad use of space
  • Not utilizing integrated cameras effectively (see photo)
  • Trying to pack options on the screen that no one wants or uses
  • Not prioritizing the majority of drivers that use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto

Instead of filling the screen with the functions you are currently using, most manufacturers leave space for other controls, split screen, or messages. The same applies to mirroring you phone to the built-in display.

The 2022 Toyota Tundra has the cleanest large screen infotainment I’ve seen to date. This was major factor in why I purchased this particular truck, especially after pre-ordering an F-150 Lightning, and never owning a Toyota before. The Tundra’s infotainment is simple and thoughtfully laid out on the giant 14-inch LCD display in the center of the dash. There’s not a lot of bloat either with a modest selection of four different modes, plus Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

When using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, it takes over the entire screen giving you the most screen real estate to see your maps, music, or podcasts. My previous vehicles from Stellantis had a bottom navigation bar with CarPlay enabled to allow you to navigate away from CarPlay without having to do anything. Toyota’s implementation, like others I have seen, put a Toyota icon on your homescreen that when tapped, takes you to the built-in vehicle controls. This allows your phone mirroring experience to be more immersive . When the truck’s cameras are activated you again see it fullscreen and are able to see multiple cameras at once. Most of my in-car use is CarPlay so I never use the truck’s built-in functionality so the fullscreen experience was important to me. Hopefully soon Apple updates Carplay to better use the large amount of screen space I have now and make the elements fit better.

Digital rearview mirror camera
Front and bird’s eye cameras at a stop light

2022 Toyota Tundra technology overview

Pros:
UI elements utilize large screen
Fullscreen Apple CarPlay / Android Auto
Responsive and high resolution
No bloatware or complicated views
Landscape orientation
Digital rearview mirror

Cons:
Can’t use in-vehicle WiFi hotspot and wireless CarPlay simulteanously
CarPlay elements not made for such a large screen
Uses Google Maps, but not an online version
360º camera view only available in park [P]
Most camera views only available in drive [D]

In my short four months of owning the Toyota Tundra, it received one software update that was mainly bug fixes, but that doesn’t prevent them from adding features via an update. Hopefully they can add some cool stuff I haven’t thought of, but this is a promising start to a car brand that I once wrote off due to their interest in technology innovation.

Read about why I sold my Jeep and bought a truck.

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