The Ultimate Smartwatch

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A month ago, I finally hopped onto the wearable-tech bandwagon. I’d played around before – the equivalent of standing on the footboard – but with a Fitbit that’s supposed to be worn 24/7, I’m on it. 

And immediately, I have a list of problems. 

Problem #1. The biggest one isn’t an issue yet – access. My phone’s small enough to fit in a jeans pocket and hold in one hand while large enough to browse the net, so almost everything I need can be got by just taking it out – but I’m already using a tablet for media consumption, and while the phone’s fine for audio, anything more visually-oriented, just won’t be as portable. 

Meaning, a wrist-mounted or HUD display, running off the phone/phablet/tablet that’s sitting in the backpack. 

Problem #2 – limited real estate. 

The wrist is probably the most accessible, robust, and flexible option – and you don’t look as geeked-out as you would with a Glass (the contact lens should be a good step up, though) – but I have only two, and already have a watch on one and a fitness tracker on the other. Add one phone-display add-on, and that’s already one too many – plus, medical trackers, GPS locators, and a whole lot of other stuff is coming around the corner. 

It’s practically back to the pager-walkman-phone-camera utility belt days.

And I refuse to strap on devices to my head, neck, wrists, ankles, and fingers, and keep track of each one’s connection, battery level, sensitivity, and integration whenever I step in or out of a shower or pool. Or a Mumbai Monsoon. 

Smartwatches have to have a extension-based philosophy, I guess. A tough, moderately-sized but high-resolution screen – preferably waterproof, dustproof, and shockproof, since they’ll be getting a lot more abuse than a phone – a high-bandwidth, fast connection to the phone – and a lot of sensors.

Really, a lot.

It doesn’t need to have much processing or storage, all that can be handled by the phone – but by adding in the gyro, accelerometers, temperature, pressure, altitude, gps, body heat sensor, heartrate, gps, nfc, camera, mike, proximity, and compass, the watch can become the sensory cluster that feeds info to the brain in the phone, and reports back the results. 

Let the apps that use the inputs, process it, store it, upload it, and display it back all be on the phone – that way usage is software-based, upgradeable, in the cloud. New capabilities will come out in the apps that figure out how to use the existing sensors; the watch itself can just be replaced as and when needed, or whenever a new sensor gets added and is necessary. 

I’m not too enthused about modular sensors – have a feeling they’ll interfere with the aesthetics, make it too delicate. A single sensor-and-display block would probably be easier to manage. 

Let’s see what comes out. 

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Interesting. A ‘safer’ #smartgun means

Interesting. A ‘safer’ #smartgun means less deaths… or more guns? http://ow.ly/tM6Su

XboX One: Will it impact my style of play?

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There’s been a lot of bad press about Microsoft’s flagship console recenyly, so I thought of doing a refcheck against my gaming style on consoles and see if I were handed a One tomorrow, would it be good or bad.

I play on controller, buy used games, sometimes trade back bad games but generally hang onto the good ones, and use the console for the high-end graphics, fast start and non-dependency on other systems (I have a PC that used to break down a lot before), I’m the only gamer and have a big TV in a small room. I look for intelligence and narrative in my games, but also a lot of the visual wow.

1. All my games are PS3 / PC. So I would have to buy all new games. But given I’m changing consoles, that’s probably fine – I’m ready for it.

2. I can’t buy used games. That’s a big problem – I generally wait for the reviews and buy well after release, usually from the replay sections. Now, I’m looking at spending close to 3K on average per game. Not really affordable – especially when I have a near-top-end gaming rig, where the new games are around a third of the cost.

3. Always-online (or at least once every 24 hours) – My internet connection is slow and sometimes unreliable. The speeds are usually decent late night – and a console means gaming from home, which usually will be always online. Not a very big dealbreaker, but there have been times (especially when moving) where home internet has been spotty and unusable for weeks. I don’t think I can use a wifi hotspot either – is it cable or router connection only?

4. Always-on Kinect: The console’s not in my bedroom or bathroom, but I am concerned about the security, since, if hacked, it effectively gives a clear indicator when I’m not home. The console’s in the living room, so no worries about porn or flashing the Kinect family.

5. Kinect: I’m not a major motion-games player; the room’s just too small, so I’ve always been more comfortable with the controllers.

6. Alternate systems: I’m probably not going to be giving up the current PS3, but my TV does have 2 more HDMI slots free, and I just disposed of my DVD player so I have enough storage space.

So on balance, there’s nothing dramatically new the One is delivering that makes it a compelling buy, and several okay reasons not to buy – privacy, cost of games, connectivity.

So, what are the alternatives?

a. I stick to the PS3. I’m pretty sure there’s enough games that are going to continue to be made for a while – just too many people own these rigs.
b. The PC. I already have it hooked to the TV with a wireless keyboard / mouse / gamepad combo; it’s running enough high-end hardware to nearly match the PS3. One major upgrade later, I’ll be sorted for years.
c. The Valve Steam box. All the PC goodness without the console issues, if you’re okay with Steam. I’d obviously have to have a much better network, but that’s something a few years in the future.

What can change this? If Microsoft comes out with absolutely AMAZING, kick-ass, unreplicable, exclusive games. A LOT of them. Not too sure how likely this is, and they will anyway be for PC as well. Oculus Rift is likely to be coming for PC first, and so will Kinect. And PCs WILL always have more customizability, control, hacks, mods, downloads, DLCs, and all the bells and whistles you could ever want. The only place where consoles had been able to beat them before – and the real reason I bought a console to begin with – was quality of display and hassle-free setup and use. All that changes with the new-generation consoles.

Long story short, time to start drawing up the specs for the next PC upgrade. 

Home Networks: Part 1

rather than trying to crack games, I’m beginning to realize a far more useful way to spend a Saturday afternoon is meddling around with electronics. 

For a long time, I was frustrated with the very poor networking setup at home. 

Imagine the flat like a triangle, each corner being a place where I need connectivity – but the router’s being used more as a switch than a wifi signal broadcaster, which means it needs to be in one corner (where my TV and PS3 need to be connected onto the net) with one long cable going into another corner (which had my computer). The router couldn’t be in the center without a mess of ethernet cables draped across the hall, and putting all other devices in proximity would turn my living room into Lamington Road and still not solve the issue of connectivity in other parts.

Back when you’re a penniless sales exec who just needs a single dedicated connection to a computer (and maybe a cheap wifi that easily reaches every corner of a pigeonhole apartment), the single-router method would work – and besides, wires and cables just added to the ambience at that time, the rest coming from discarded pizza boxes, beer cans, ashtrays and laundry. 

Now unfortunately there are other considerations – there are already 5 mobile devices that like wifi, 3 more that want an ethernet cable with this number likely to expand… and cables draped across the room being out of the question, I have to get creative. 

First off, I leave the better router (a Linksys E1000) at the core of the network in one corner. 

The dedicated ethernet line to the computer is taken to a point midway in the middle of the flat, maybe a bit further towards the non-wifi side, and my old Dlink DIR300 gets hooked up here. 

You can’t use 2 routers on a single modem / line, unless you want to end up with 2 networks (which would be fun but not very user-friendly for the other residents) so it’s better to repurpose this as an access point. Setting up an access point is fairly easy – 

  • Get the network name, IP address, SSID, subnet mask, and network mode from your primary router. You can get this by logging onto the router’s admin panel from your browser – usually 192.16.1.1, but google ‘default ip address for (your router model) to confirm what it’s going to be for you. Write this down. 
  • Plug a cable into any ethernet port of your second router (not into the internet-in port) and get into the admin there as well. You may need to factory-reset (just stick a pin into the reset hole at the back) the modem to factory, I had to – and set the same details exactly the same as your primary router. 
  • Switch off / disable DHCP server on the secondary router, save settings. 
  • If you don’t have a wifi password set, then set them – especially if you’re not on an unlimited plan and moderate to low speeds. Free wifi will be very easily picked up by any number of devices, your bandwidth will get used up, and you’ll never realize it until the bill comes – and it’s not just other computers and laptops, but also smartphones, PSPs, ipods, the works. 
  • On my PC, now disconnected from the cable, I put a USB wifi receiver dongle. You can get relatively cheap ones easily. 
  • The ethernet cable coming from the primary router needs to be plugged into an ethernet port on the secondary (NOT the internet-in port).
  • For a more detailed step-by-step, see here and here. I found these to be the best advisories, and they have pictures. 

And that’s it. I now have wifi connectivity all over the house, fewer cables trailing into the PC room (and they’re damn painful to manage if it needs to go through a door – either the door will never close again or the cable will keep getting damaged), and the original core system in the living room is unchanged – and I didn’t even lose an ethernet port!

Talking of which, I’m thinking about adding a network storage drive – any suggestions? I need it to store my movies and stream them to either the TV directly, or the PS3. Tried setting up a mediaserver on the PC, but it slows the system down dramatically and doesn’t always refresh – and besides, I don’t want 2 TB of media clogging up my drives. 

That’s going to take my last available port, so I guess that means I need a switch as well. But that’s for the next post, once I pick up and install the network drive.  

Hardware

This one is slightly off-topic compared to the rest, but felt it’s a better fit here than any other blogs.

Last month, my fairly ancient Nvidia 9400 burnt out, unable to bear the pressure of several hundred hours over the last year of high-end games, days-on-end downloads, and varied voltage fluctuations. Having had some pretty pathetic customer service from my regular dealer, I decided to skip the middleman this time and go straight to the source. So, I present –

How to research and upgrade your GPU. 

  1. Step 1: You need to know your system in exquisite detail. Assuming you’ve lost the original packaging, open up the cabinet and start googling all the product codes you can find. The make should be fairly prominent, but the exact version number will be printed somewhere around the PCI slot. You’ll also need to know exactly what slot you were using – is it an older AGP or a PCI / PCI-e, and which version. Google these as well, sometimes newer cards will have problem with older slots. www.hardwaresecrets.com, www.tomshardware.com will be useful.
  2. Step 2: Once you know the slot used, start looking up the options for a GPU. Don’t worry about GPU RAM – it’s independent from your system RAM, so you can use DDR3 even your motherboard has DDR2.
  3. Step 3: Check your power supply. Older systems had 300W, so some of the newer cards – especially the high-performance ones – will have issues. 400W is ok, 450W is good, but allow for a decent margin, especially if you’ve got a lot of stuff running off a single power supply – multiple internal HDDs, DVD drives, and multiple peripherals running off the USBs.
  4. Step 4: Software compatibility. While most systems have a Windows OS, which will work, you need to check for known issues among your shortlist if you have any other OS – for example, I had a Ubuntu 10.4 which has issues with the ATI/AMD Radeon 6xxx series (and I mention that explicitly is because that’s what I discovered after purchase and installation)
  5. Step 5: Purchase. First of all, look up the current prices to have an approximate idea. You already know your budget, and you have a shortlist of the models you want – Flipkart and eBay both are good sources for current prices, and knowing the base price here will stop you from getting ripped off. If you’re buying on your own – and I recommend you do – head down to Lamington Road in Mumbai. Google for the good stores before you go, or you’ll be lost – there’s hundred of them everywhere. You won’t find much difference in the prices shop to shop, they’re all networked and don’t undercut each other, but the better ones will be able to help you decide and replace if there’s any issues with the product. This is also where you’ll get the lowest prices. There are other distributors across the city, but prices will be higher, and range smaller. Around (within a 5-minute bike ride) the distributors there’ll be lots of small retail computer stores – these will have the poorest range, the highest prices, will push old stock on you and are probably the most familiar face of your hardware experience, but it’s time to move on, isn’t it?
  6. Step 6: Actual replacement. Again, just google what you’re about to do (and make sure you have the page open on a laptop / second computer / printed out beforehand) and shut down, open up, remove old card, insert new card, do not force or struggle, tighten the screws, and you’re done. GPU replacements are probably the easiest to do, other than RAM – no cables to manage, as most GPUs run direct off the PCI slot. If it needs an external power supply, make sure you’ve identified where that goes. I’m not going to talk about crossfiring, I don’t know enough about that – try it on your own.
  7. Restart and let the system detect the new hardware, run the manufacturer disk, and you’re set.
  8. Emergencies – in case there’s any issues, you can always get a working (non-gaming) system by simply using the motherboard’s own VGA slot for the monitor instead of the GPU slot. You can also use this when your GPU’s about to fail / has failed, leaving you with a blank monitor.
Next post – since I messed around too much with Linux’ graphic driver settings, I’ll be wiping that and upgrading to Oneiric Ocelot; review coming soon.

On The Turning Away Of The Face(book)

Hi Ashish,
We’re trying out a new feature to reduce the amount of email you receive from Facebook. Starting today, we are turning off most individual email notifications and instead, we’ll send you a summary only if there are popular stories you may have missed.
You can turn individual emails back on and restore all your original settings at any time.
Thanks,
The Facebook Team

But with Facebook, is anything ever as easy as it seems?

Think about the implications of this for a moment. If you’re a normal facebooker, you will check in fairly regularly, and what prompts the check-in (usually) is something that gives you a feeling that something’s happened. An alert mail. Somebody commented on your post. Somebody tagged you in a photo, mentioned you in a note. Friended you. etc.

This is usually in your mail. Which can come on your mobile, your POP account…

Also look at that little sidebar that came up a few days back – there are all your alerts! It’s a very… twitter-esque interface, also in the sense of it’s impermanency… an update that gets pushed down is gone.

Psychologically? You feel cut off. You feel you don’t know what’s going on in your social world when you’re off FB, and are flooded with information, real-time, when you’re on it. Interactivity and presence is encouraged. Absenteeism is literally punished with silence – FB’s shunning you.

Result? FB is always-on, increased timespends, interactions, pageviews…

Good call, Zuck!

To or not to… work from home

The whole concept of ‘working from home’ is fraught with pitfalls, not the least of which is a highly negative connotation it’s come to acquire, at least in the Indian concept, standing as shorthand for ‘on leave without using up leaves’. However, there are positive aspects as well, and then some surprises.

Working from home becomes possible in some specific scenarios – your work doesn’t involve frequent interaction with colleagues in the same office and is independent. Writing, creative work, design, coding, accounts, or anything involve own, small business, etc – this basically needs your brain and a task at hand that doesn’t depend on anyone else. An alternative is if your interactions are limited to phone / mail only. Check.

No distractions in the home – which means no kids / aged parents / frequent visitors / nearby construction. If you can also set aside a part of the house – say, a spare room / study, or your bedroom if nobody else is using it, that works too – but both you and everyone else needs to be disciplined enough not to break that sanctity. Check.

Discipline. It’s very tempting to catch an episode you’re following, finish off a ‘few’ pages in a book you’re reading, finish a chapter in a game you’re playing, or even just surf. It’s a black hole, a bottomless pit, that. It never ends – a few minutes becomes an hour, half a day, and then you’re basically screwed.

Laziness. The biggest advantage working from home gives you is the ability to save on travel time – in my case, close to 3 hours a day – but that can also lull you into a false sense of security, where you imagine you have a lot more time to complete a task than is actually there. Trust me, you don’t want to be sitting at home and working once the family is back and the day turns into night; even if you live alone, it’s psychologically very exhausting. Just make a deadline, a schedule, and stick to it.

Independence. This is a pitfall. When your power goes out, your internet goes down, or your computer crashes, you’re on your own. Make sure you have your backups and redundant solutions available – buy a external HD, save every few minutes, get a USB internet stick, the works. Nobody listens if you don’t deliver due to things beyond your control.

If you can greenlight all of the above, go ahead; you’ll save your office some decent rental and maintenance space, and you an extra few hours a day of leisure.

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