We’ve been living through the mobile digital revolution for the past decade and a half. The first decade of the 2000s saw familiar products — dial telephones and record players, cameras and maps, day planners and board games — transformed into digital devices that we could carry in our pockets. Then the latter part of the decade saw these separate devices combined and integrated into the single device that does it all — the smartphone.
Then over the past five years we have seen the smartphone become much more than a consolidated device, as it was customized with downloadable applications and connected to online services and storage to become the central hub for accessing, creating, and sharing our digital life.
This year we are seeing the next step come to fruition, as the smartphone becomes the connection nexus to other devices that can monitor and control our environment. We can now connect to our surroundings with smart home devices, including networked cameras, lights, and appliances. We can extend our senses outward with wireless audio, virtual reality video, and camera drones. And we can connect to ourselves with digital devices that track and monitor our fitness and health.
The smartphone is also becoming your digital personal assistant, with systems like Apple Siri, Google Assistant, and Amazon Alexa. Now you can have a virtual assistant available at any time for you to offload tasks by simply talking — from looking up information, to reading and replying to texts, to turning up the heat in the home, to ordering a pizza.
The Consumer Technology Association echoes these themes in its annual holiday forecast. The CTA projects retail sales will be up 3.8 percent this holiday season, with consumer spending on technology up 3.1 percent. This growth will be driven by the explosion in online (16.4 percent) and especially mobile sales (45.2 percent).
While growth continues in existing technology categories including widescreen TVs (now expanding into 4K UHD / Ultra High Def), the real excitement is in these emerging technology categories. The CTA projects holiday sales of fitness trackers at 12.6 million units, smart watches at 5.5 million, drones at 1.2 million, and virtual reality at 700,000.
Digital Revolution: Smart Home
The idea of the “Internet of Things” (IoT) has become a hot topic in the past few years, with the idea that we would connect all our devices together, and to the Internet, so that we could use our smartphone to control and manage our smart home and smart car and smart toys. Soon your refrigerator will play video and warn you when you are out of milk, and your washer will text you when the load is done and then automatically order more detergent, and your child’s doll will keep an eye on them for you with live streaming video.
This idea of the smart home is intriguing, with the potential to enhance the security and efficiency of your home. If you are interested, beyond buying new Internet-connected appliances, you also can automate your home by retrofitting smart devices, including door locks that unlock remotely from your smartphone (e.g., Kwikset), thermostats that save energy by learning your schedule (Nest), and slow cookers that you can start working as you begin your commute home (Crock-Pot).
However, setting up these devices can require a significant investment in time and energy. In particular, you will need to choose and set up the infrastructure to connect them together, such as Apple HomeKit, Samsung SmartThings, or Belkin WeMo.
Another alternative is to get started by experimenting with stand-alone products, such as wireless lightbulbs that you can control from your smartphone to adjust their brightness or even color (e.g., Philips Hue). But even something as simple as working with lights requires buying new bulbs, or needing to re-wire the light sockets or wall switches. Or you can get started in an easier way, with devices such as these:
Switchmate home smart light switch. Using the Switchmate app, you can control the lights remotely, including having them turn on automatically as you enter the room, as well as set timers to turn the lights on and off at any time, whether you are at home or away. List price: $39.
There’s literally no installation, no need to re-wire anything. Instead, simply place the Switchmate plate over your existing light switch, and it attaches magnetically to the existing screws. There’s no tools, no wires, no fuss at all. The Switchmate simply flicks the switch mechanically using a motorized slider.
The Switchmate is available in white and ivory to match your decor, and with models for either toggle (standard) or rocker switches. This is a clever approach to getting started with smart home automation. It works well — the magnets are strong enough to keep the Switchmate securely in place, and you can still flick the switch manually. It runs on two AA batteries that should last up to one year.
The key to this kind of stand-alone wireless device is that it does not use Wi-Fi and is not connected to the Internet. Instead, the Switchmate uses Bluetooth wireless for a direct point-to-point connection to your smartphone, like a wireless mouse with your computer or wireless earphones for your smartphone. However, it is limited in range — today’s Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) works best within a range of 30 feet, but can extend to an unobstructed range of 100 feet.
The Tile Bluetooth Tracker is a water-resistant tag that you can attach to your things to help find them when they go missing. Price: The Tile Mate model is available for $25 each, or $70 for a 4-pack, and the Tile Slim is available for $30 each, or $100 for a 4-pack.
The Tile Mate is a small square tag (1.34 x 1.34 x 0.18 inches) that you can attach to your key ring or put in your briefcase. The new Tile Slim is flattened to a larger 2.13 x 2.13 square, but is only 0.09 inches thick (like two credit cards), so you can slip it in your wallet or attach it to the surface of a laptop.
The Tile tags then work with the Tile app to keep in touch with your smartphone when they are near. To find misplaced keys, tap on the Tile smartphone app and the Tile tag will play a loud tune. Or if your phone has gone missing, double-press the button on the Tile to ring your phone, so you can find it even when it is silenced.
If you leave a Tile behind, you also can use the app to view its last known location on a map so that you can go back and find it.
The Tile app also communicates with a Tile server in the cloud, which opens up other possibilities to track your stuff. If you lose a Tile, you can notify the Tile server and have the whole community of Tile users look for it. You will receive an alert if anyone else running the Tile app comes near your tag.
You also can easily share stuff tagged with Tiles with other users. And you can connect the Tile app across multiple devices to ring one from another.
In addition, the Tile app on your smartphone is accessible from the Tile website. If you log in on the web, you can see the location of your phone, ring your phone remotely, and set a lock-screen message for anyone who finds it.
The Tile’s battery runs for about a year and is not rechargeable. Tile then offers a reTile program to replace and upgrade your Tile, currently at half off.
A Caveat: The excitement of the “Internet of Things” has been dampened recently by the evolution of this dream into the “Internet of Hacked Things,” as it turns out that manufacturers of cost-sensitive consumer products were not focused on security issues, and consumers are not trained as computer security experts.
Instead, the Internet is now full of “smart” devices that have default passwords that are easily hacked, and which are now being used as remote-controlled botnets to stage distributed cyber attacks. So please do be careful if you attach Internet-connected devices like networked cameras to your home Wi-Fi system, and change the default passwords.
Extend Your Senses: Wireless Headphones
Smartphones also can become portals to extend your senses — your hearing and vision. In particular, wireless audio continues to be very popular, both with wireless speakers that you can place in your home or carry along on the go, and with wireless headsets.
Jabra Halo Smart Bluetooth headphones. The Halo Smart is a great choice if you’re moving around and on the phone a lot during the day and also like listening to music. They are wireless, in that the connection to the phone is through Bluetooth. However, the earphones are actually each wired to a U-shaped neckband, which contains the electronics and battery needed to get you through the day, with up to 17 hours talk time and 14 hours of music playback. The neckband also vibrates to alert on an incoming call. Price: $79.
Since they are designed for all-day use, the earphones are mounted on short 8-inch cords and have magnetic sleeves that snap together around your neck or attach to the neckband to store out of the way when you need to remove them.
The Halo Smart is quite comfortable to wear, weighing only 1.34 ounces. The neckband flexes to fit larger necks, and is wind and water resistant. The neckband also holds the phone and playback controls, plus a dedicated voice button that provides direct access to Apple Siri or Google Now on Android.
It provides clear calls on the go, with clean voice and music quality for your ears, and a wind protected microphone and noise reduction technology for your voice.
Apple AirPods wireless headphones. Meanwhile, Apple has reinforced the movement to wireless audio by controversially removing the standard audio jack from the new iPhone 7 smartphone. Instead, Apple announced the new AirPods, which are earphones with a short extension down from your ears that contains beamforming microphones to help isolate your voice.
The AirPods also sense when you place them in your ear or remove them, so the smartphone audio can be automatically transferred from the smartphone to the earphones and back. They are rated for a five hour battery life, or 24 hours with the included charging case, and a 15 minute charging time.
When announced, the AirPods were to be available by the end of October for a hefty $159. As that date passed, Apple acknowledged that they have slipped, and current industry rumors suggest that they will actually ship sometime by, or even after, the end of the year.
Extend Your Senses: Virtual Reality Video
Another way to extend your senses with a smartphone is with Virtual Reality. This is an interesting pairing — The most visible current application of VR is in PC or console gaming, when you wear a VR headset to immerse yourself in the game’s environment and the computer dynamically generates 3-D graphics to update your view as you move your head around.
Sony PlayStation VR. VR gaming got a significant boost with the recent release of this new headset for the PlayStation 4 gaming console (that also requires the $40 PlayStation camera to track your position as you move around in front of the console). This appears to be a quite reasonable first-generation product and is supported with a growing collection of games. List price: $339.
You also see “VR” on the web with 360-degree panoramic photos, for example to explore a scenic view on a travel site or the interior of a hotel where you are interested in staying. You explore the scene in a window on the web page, and use the mouse to pan the view around within the larger panorama.
The new wrinkle in VR is 360-degree video — not just photos, but video shot using a 360-degree camera. You then can experience riding a boat down the Grand Canyon, or standing on stage during a musical performance, or flying up to the edge of space — not just from the single view that was shot by a camera operator, but with the ability to look around in any direction, at any time.
Sites like YouTube and NYT (New York Times) VR now offer collections of these 360 videos, with web playback in a window so you can pan around in the view at it plays. And now, with smartphones, we can enjoy these experiences easily and inexpensively. First, you can play the videos on the smartphone screen, and drag with your finger to change the view into the scene — or move the smartphone around to view the scene, as the view changes based on the orientation of the smartphone.
Google Cardboard. Product designs based on Google Cardboard provide simple headsets that use the smartphone as the display — just slide the phone into place inside the front of the headset to view it through the headset lenses. Then start the video playing and look through the lenses to experience a surprising sense of realism. The basic design is literally made from foldable cardboard. Price: $15.
This does require using a VR player app on the smartphone that splits the 360 video into separate views for each eye, and then adjusts the viewpoint in response to your head motion so you can naturally look around and behind, up and down.
Vivitar Virtual Reality Glasses. This is more of a conventional VR headset, with suction cups to hold the smartphone in place. Price: $5.99 (suggesting that plastic is cheaper than cardboard).
Homido Mini VR Glasses. This product strips the concept down to the essentials — as foldable lenses that simply clip on the smartphone. Price: $14.
Shooting your own 360 videos requires a special camera, typically with a spherical lens to shoot a full 360 degrees horizontal and some 200+ degrees vertical, or with two spherical cameras back to back the shoot the entire surrounding sphere. While 360 video cameras currently start at around $100 to $400, you can expect that they will become more available, particularly with action cameras like GoPro or you can hold out for the upcoming product below:
HumanEyes Vuze. This virtual reality camera shoots 360 degree videos and photos — and in full 3-D, using four pairs of stereo cameras. Price: $799, but it is not due to be shipped until next March.
Connect to Yourself: Digital Fitness
Besides connecting to your home or car or toys, smartphones also allow you to monitor yourself, through digital health devices that can track and measure your activities. This has become a big area, from fitness trackers to the introduction of more sophisticated devices like the Apple iWatch, each with companion apps on your smartphone.
Fitbit has continued to develop an extensive line of digital heath devices, starting with small pocket trackers like the Fitbit Zip and One ($59 and $99) that track your walking steps, stair climbing, and even sleep activity.
Then there are fitness wrist bands like the Fitbit Flex 2 and Alta ($99 and $129) that connect with your smartphone to display incoming texts and calls and calendar alerts (along with the time). And the Charge 2 ($149), available from Verizon Wireless, adds an optical heart rate monitor on the back of the display. It saves your activity data minute by minute for seven days, and heart rate data at five second intervals, or at one second intervals during exercise.
And there are fitness watches like the Fitbit Blaze and Surge ($199 and $299), with a larger watch face, deeper smartphone integration to control music playback, and even built-in GPS to track movement even when you do not have your smartphone.
But these are just the data collection devices, with wrist displays for your currently tracked metrics. The real power of these devices comes from the companion smartphone apps. You can track your activity and exercise over time, see trends, and compare to your goals. The apps can analyze your performance and provide feedback and reminders to help keep you on plan. And, of course, you can share your progress and connect with friends online and over social media.
Interaxon Muse. Another example of clever smartphone integration is the brain sensing headband ($249). The idea here is to monitor your brain activity in order to help you relax and meditate. But how can you relax when a monitoring device is beeping at you because you are not relaxed? The Muse app solves this dilemma by playing a relaxing soundscape like ocean waves. You hear peaceful weather when your mind is calm, and then the weather sounds become subtly stronger if your mind starts to wander, to gently guide you back to calmness. Price: $249.
Extend Your Senses: Camera Drones
Another way to extend your vision is to fly vicariously using camera-equipped drones that transmit the live video to your smartphone. Today’s quadcopter drones (four-propeller helicopters) are much more stable than older remote-controlled planes, and can provide on-board intelligence to make them easier to fly.
The Vivitar Air Defender X with Wi-Fi. This camera drone is sold as a toy, but has a 16.1 MP camera that transmits video to your smartphone to view and record. It can hover in place, and perform tricks like flying upside down. And it is wrapped with 32 LEDs to fly at night. It has a range of 200 meters, and a flight time of five to seven minutes. Price: $99.
DJI Mavic Pro. For a preview of what’s coming in drones, check out this professional foldable drone with amazing automated flight capabilities. Price: $749 and up.
The Mavic is foldable — the four propeller arms fold in to the base to compact down to 3.26 x 3.26 x 7.79 inches and weighs only 1.64 pounds. And it literally can fly itself, including hovering in place in winds up to 24 mph, and automatically flying to a specified destination — while detecting and avoiding obstacles in the path. It also can follow you as you move around, keeping the camera pointed at you as it stays in the same relative position to you (to the front or on one side) and the same relative height over the ground.
You can fly the Mavic from your smartphone and view the video feed (shot at 4K resolution), or even put down your phone and use arm gestures to control it. It can fly up to 27 minutes, streaming video from up to four miles away, and then automatically return to its launch point when done. Plus DJI offers VR googles that you can wear to experience the flight as if you were on board the drone.
The smartphone began as the combination of other digital devices, then expanded as a platform for apps, and now has become the hub to reach out and connect to other devices in our environment. But all this capability still requires a bunch of tapping on the screen to launch the right app and navigate its interface.
The development of digital assistants seeks to simplify our lives even further by allowing us to use voice commands to run apps, carry out actions, seek information, and even control external devices. Natural voice interfaces have improved greatly in the past five years and are now approximating “human parity,” when we can expect that what we say will usually be understood, even without training to a specific voice, and even in somewhat noisy environments.
Competing digital assistant systems including Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft Cortana already provide an amazing range of capabilities, typically including: Retrieving information, including spell checking, word definitions, and synonyms, and even language translation; accessing entertainment, including searching and playing music; providing travel assistance, including address lookups and spoken door-to-door navigation: performing device actions (operating apps), including making phone calls and reading and replying to text and email.
All these are powerful and useful computer applications, but how can you wrap one up in a package and stick it under the Christmas tree? Here are some possibilities:
Google Pixel smartphone from Verizon Wireless. Google has recently upgraded its service from Google Now, as developed from voice search, to Google Assistant, evolving to supporting two-way dialogs to clarify requests instead of a simple command and response. Google Assistant is available first on the new Google Pixel smartphone, first available from Verizon Wireless. Price: $649 for the 5 inch display, plus $120 for the XL model with 5.5 inch display, plus $100 to expand from 32 to 128 GB of storage. The Pixel also features an impressive 12.3 MP main camera and 8 MP front camera.
Amazon Echo. While Amazon does not have its own smartphone product, its Amazon Alexa digital assistant is available on its Fire tablets, on its Fire TV service, and its stand-alone Amazon Echo wireless speaker products. The Amazon Echo speakers with Alexa voice commands are designed to be placed in your home to provide assistance whenever you want it, without even needing to pull out your phone. Price: The original Echo is a cylindrical Bluetooth speaker with Alexa built in. Price: $179.
The Tap is a smaller speaker that you tap to speak, $179. The new small Echo Dot is only 3.3 x 3.3 x 1.3 inches, with a built-in speaker for Alexa, plus the ability to connect to external speakers for audio playback, $49, or order six and get one free, so you can have one in every room. Just say “Alexa” to wake it up so it starts listening to your request.
Google Home. This voice-activated speaker comes with the Google Assistant service. Just start with “OK, Google,” and then, for example, start music playing, get answers powered by the Google search engine, retrieve personal information from your Google account (with permission), or control your smart home devices. Price: $129, in seven colors.
Alexa, like the other services, also provides access to its online cloud storage for your media, for example for playing songs, but also for reading books, including audiobooks from Audible.
Nostalgia Entertainment System
This year’s hot gift is a blast from 1985: The Nintendo Entertainment System Classic edition is a miniature replica of the original gray, boxy video game set that appeared under the Christmas trees of older millennials three decades ago, and by all accounts it’s every bit as fun. Game review site Polygon said the console “offers some notable upgrades without ever losing sight of what it’s built to do.”
For $60, the NES Classic comes with 30 of the best-loved games installed and one controller, which is identical to the original gamepad right down to the screws. A second controller can be bought separately in case you have a friend who wants a decades-overdue rematch in Tecmo Bowl. Its HDMI output allows it to connect easily to modern televisions, and with crisper graphics and sound than the vintage model ever provided.
Another nice modern upgrade is the ability to “suspend” games and come back to them later, even in titles that did not originally have a save feature. There are no cartridges, memory card slots, or even Internet connectivity. Instead, everything is pre-installed, including all three Super Mario Brothers games, the Legend of Zelda, Mega Man 2, Final Fantasy, Metroid, and StarTropics.
The problem is that finding the NES Classic in stock somewhere is harder than beating the hover bike level in Battletoads. Customers who lucked out and bought one already are selling them on Amazon for upwards of $200.
Digital Revolution : Power Supplies
Last but certainly not least, a more prosaic device that had its own revolution this year — the power supply. As laptops are getting smaller and skinnier and lighter, the power supply that you need to carry with them has been looking more bulky and heavy by comparison, with the boxy “brick” unit and its associated cables.
But now two companies have introduced significantly smaller laptop chargers. The trick is new technology for more efficient power conversion, which means more power with significantly less bulk and weight — and less heat from wasted energy.
FINsix Dart Laptop Charger. Described as “the world’s smallest laptop charger,” the FINsix is roughly the size of a roll of quarters at only 2.75 by 1.1 inches, and, at around three ounces, it’s four times smaller and lighter than current laptop chargers. Price: $99.
The FINsix plugs into an electrical outlet and has a six-foot cable that runs to your laptop. The product includes nine universal power tips that support more than 95 percent of today’s PC laptops and notebooks. However, it currently is not compatible with the Apple MacBook or Microsoft Surface. As a bonus, the cable includes an inline 2.1A USB port to simultaneously charge another device.
Zolt Laptop Charger Plus. The Zolt is slightly larger at about 3.7 x 1.3 inches and 3.5 ounces. The base has foldable prongs for travel and includes three USB ports — one for the laptop and two additional for mobile devices, including smartphones, tablets, portable speakers, and digital cameras. It can simultaneously charge a hefty 65W laptop plus a couple of iPhones. Price: $99.
The Zolt includes eight interchangeable PC power tips for the six foot cord, which are compatible with 90 percent of current laptops. Additional spare cables and MacBook Mag cables also are available for $19. The base also rotates to move the wires to the side so that you can access adjacent outlets.
Both are available in multiple colors. So you get a charger plus additional USB power in a size you can wrap your hand around, and with a thin cable that wraps around the unit to further reduce the bulk, as you can replace both the laptop adaptor and separate USB adaptors.
Douglas Dixon is an independent technology consultant. Visit www.manifest-tech.com.
Upcoming Holiday Tech Talks by Douglas Dixon:
Tuesday, November 22, 7 p.m. Princeton PC Users Group, Mercer County Library, Lawrenceville. www.ppcug-nj.org
Tuesday, December 6, 1:30 p.m. Computer Learning Center at Ewing, 999 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing. www.clcewing.org
Wednesday, December 7,7 p.m. Princeton Public Library. www.princetonlibrary.org
Tuesday, December 13, 7:30 p.m. Princeton Mac Users Group, www.pmug-nj.org.