Tuesday, July 4, 2017

What good is a Smartwatch?

I waited a long time to even try out a smartwatch.  I don't like wearing watches in the first place, and the phone in my pocket has all the info I need.  I didn't see the use for a smartwatch.  I do however, like tracking my fitness especially with bicycling.  I had a Polar Bluetooth heart rate sensor that I used but it quit working.  I also did not like wearing it.  I wanted a better heart rate sensor so I decided to look into smartwatches.

I chose the Motorola Moto 360 Sport.  These have been around for a while and you can often find them on sale for a great price.  I think I paid $169 for mine but I have seen them under $100 sometimes.  It has the optical heart rate sensor.  It came with Android Wear 1.5 but it should be upgraded to Wear 2.0 any day.


While I was certainly a naysayer on smartwatches, I have found more uses for mine than I thought.  I wear it every day now.  I don't think I would spend over $200 to get one but for the price I paid, I feel I am getting the value from it.

Fitness Tracking

May first use for the watch was for heart-rate monitoring during bike rides and walks.  I wanted a device that would integrate with the apps I use for tracking these activities.  I use Google Fit for my daily activity tracking.  I was using Cardio Trainer for bicycling.  I had also used My Tracks for this in the past.  It turns out that Cardio Trainer and My Tracks do not support the heart rate from this device.  Lame!  So, I switch to a more popular biking app called Strava.  This is a better app than Cardio Trainer anyway and it gives nice graphs for heart rate, as well as the rest of the data.  It also integrates with Google Fit.  Very nice.


Sometimes it would be handy to see notifications without pulling the phone from my pocket.  I know this is a first world problem but what the heck.  Some of the more useful things are:
  • Rejecting callers.  Spam calling is totally out of control and it is very handy when one of these calls comes in to just glance at the caller info on the watch, and swipe it away.  
  • Navigation.  I didn't expect this one.  I am all about stopping distracted drivers.  People need to hang up and drive.  You should not take your eyes off the road.  I was using Google Maps to navigate on a trip.  The phone was on the seat, not visible while driving.  I was on a long straight stretch of interstate and wondered how far it was to my next turn.  I glanced at my watch and there it was.  Just a small message with the distance to, and direction of the next turn.  Nice.  
  • Seeing the time and date.  It is a watch after all.  There are many useful watch faces that are informative.  It shows the time and basic info even when the screen is off.
  • Seeing general notifications.


As an amateur Android developer I wanted a device that I could write apps for if I wanted to.  Learning Android Wear development should be easier since I am familiar with Android. The first app I started for Android Wear is a remote control for my Gamin Virb Ultra 30 action camera.  I just wanted to be able to start/stop recording and maybe snap a photo using the watch as the remote.  I did get the remote working on the phone first so I could learn how to interact with the Garmin.  Once I did that, I created a wear app for the watch.  Getting the basics going was not hard.  I don't have this app done yet though.  There is a feature I depended on that Wear 1.5 does not support.  The alternative was to use the watch app in conjunction with its phone counterpart to control the camera.  That is a work in progress.

Smartphone Shopping Summer 2017 Edition


I have not posted about smartphone shopping for a while so I thought I would capture my thoughts here as some friends have been in the market.  As you know, I prefer Android devices for many reasons:
  • Open source software
  • Large Play Store full of great apps
  • Compared to other operating systems, Android allows more flexibility.
  • Google is not evil.  There are many free features and services that are best in class
  • App to app integration.  Sharing for instance.  You can share from any app to any app you want.  Nobody is forcing you down what they want.
  • Many excellent devices to choose from.  This competition is great for both price and features.
  • Micro-USB or USB-C standards.  You can buy cables, chargers, etc from whoever you want as competitive prices.
  • SD card support.  You are not stuck with the space the device is made with.  Some support Micro-SD cards up to 2TB.  
  • Access to see files, folders, data, photos, etc.  You can also simply connect to a PC and browse it like a USB memory stick.  

Brands, Skins, Preinstalled Apps

I lean heavily towards Motorola devices.  I think they offer the best value.  Other devices have higher end specs but they come with a bunch of unwanted skins and bloatware.  For instance, Samsung, LG, and HTC all have very heavy skinned versions of Android.  It is so heavy I have a hard time finding things.  Samsung also makes their own versions of basic apps that replace the Google versions.  This is just a mess in my opinion.  These are also installed in the system meaning you can't really remove them without rooting.  All of this just hogs up more device resources so that faster process and more RAM are needed because of all this bloatware.  I don't understand why these device makers continue to do this when article after article complain about it, it costs them to make and maintain it, and many users don't even want it.  Motorola has the closest to stock Android as you can get short of a Nexus or Pixel.  

It is very interesting that devices are marketed to the public showing pre-installed apps as a feature worth paying for.  To me that is like marketing a sedan with pre-installed junk welded into the trunk that you don't want and can't remove.  Now you have a less usable car.  You can't choose what is in the trunk.  Definitely get the device with the least pre-installed stuff as you can get.  Installing apps is very simple and there are many great free apps on the Play Store.  

While I have had Motorola devices almost exclusively, I have had a Lenovo tablet.  I like the hardware but the OS is terrible.  Lenovo has a bunch of bloatware in this device.  The Lenovo launcher was the worst I have ever used.  It had apps permanently in the home screen.   They wanted to force you to use their awful apps, and those they were paid to pre-install.  I was able to fix the home screen with Google Now launcher and disable all the bloatware.  I was able to even uninstall some of it.  

My Choices

So, which device would I buy if I were shopping right now?  Here are some features that I prioritize:
  • Qualcomm Quick Charge.  This is a game changer.  Many devices has other fast charging technologies but they don't really compete.  Quick Charge uses a proprietary technique to boost the voltage so that standard cables work.  You can only boost the current so far before the loss in the cable becomes a real problem.  Most chargers only support 5V charging.  Quick Charge goes up to 12V.  You can put almost 3 times the power through the same cable.  I have Quick Charge 2.0 on my 2015 Moto-X and this is a must have feature for me.
  • A big battery.  A smartphone with a dead battery is useless.  This obsession with thin is ridiculous.  Honestly, today's phones are often too thin.  I would like to have a 6,000mAh or bigger battery if I could and I would gladly put up with the extra 6mm.  
  • At least 4GB of ram.  This is important so the device does not lag when running large apps or switching between them.  Today we also have many background processes and the device needs this ram to manage it efficiently.
  • A fast 64bit multi-core CPU running at over 2GHz.  I would say a quad minimum but 6 or 8 even better.  .  
  • It must be unlocked and free of carrier software.  
  • A good camera.  These are getting better all the time so there are many good choices here.  I don't need to record at 4k but HD is needed.  I want tomething that is fast.  I want to be able to capture moments as they happen so it must open, focus, and snap very fast.
  • A decent sized screen.  I like something in the 5.5" range as my vision is not so great anymore.  I don't need over HD though.  Even 720HD would be fine for me.  The higher resolution you get, the more processing power it eats up, which also eats more battery.  
  • Must work on Verizon.  I have a love/hate relationship with Verizon.  They have clearly become evil but they simply have the best network.  I still have the old unlimited plan.  Around town I often get over 50Mb speeds.  It is rare that I don't have service even on trips.  
  • Regardless of an SD slot, the device needs at least 32GB of memory.  This is so you can install all apps and app data on the device.
  • An SD card slot.  While you want all your apps on the device, the SD card opens up tons of space for media.  This is especially important if you shoot much video.  Strore your media, photos, and video on the SD card and save the on-board memory for apps.  Ideally the device would support the full SDXC standard which means you can use cards up to 2TB (even though that size is not yet available).  Several phones do support this.  
  • NFC.  I have starting using mobile pay.  I tried Android Pay but my cards stopped supporting it.  Now I use Capital One Wallet and it generally works well.  Honestly it is still faster and easier to just use the card in most cases but I am really hoping someday we won't need a physical wallet and this is the start of that.  I just want this option.  
  • Fingerprint sensor.  While this is low on my list, and is not a must have, it is handy at times.  
  • A good old fashioned headphone jack.  This is low on my priority list but it is something to consider these days.  I tend to prefer Bluetooth anyway so I don't need this very often.  
Here are the ones at the top of my list.

Moto G5 Plus 4GB/64GB

I would get the one with 4GB Ram which is only available with 64GB memory.  This device retails for $299 which makes it a bargain.  It has 4GB ram which gives apps plenty of space without having to swap in and out.  That makes the device more responsive, especially when switching between apps.  The 64GB memory is also nice as you want all your apps and their data on the device memory versus and SD card for speed.  SD cards are great for media and data, and this device has the slot.  It is unlocked so there is no carrier bloatware and this should also make updates faster.  It has Quick Charge 3.0 for fast battery charging.  It does lack NFC for mobile pay and certain other features, if you use that.  It has a Snapdragon 625 chip set clocked at 2.0GHz so it should keep up with most apps, except maybe some of the games that need top end performance.  For the vast majority of users, this device should be a great fit.

Moto G5S Plus

Coming soon.  This is an upgrade to the Moto G5 Plus.

Moto Z2 Play

The Moto Z line is Motorola's flagship devices.  The real unique thing about them is the Moto Mods. Moto Mods are magnetically attached devices that cover the back of the phone.  Some of the most appealing for me are the batteries.   While the Moto Z devices are silly thin in my opinion, once you attach a Moto Mods battery, it is about right.  This is even better than the removable batteries of yesteryear since you can swap the Moto Mod when the device is ON.  Just pop one off and attach the other.  Some of the Moto Mod batteries also have quick charge.  Other have wireless charge.  Several options and more coming.  The Moto Z2 Play is out now, although only the Verizon locked version right now.  The website says the unlocked version is coming soon though.  This device is priced starting at $408 retail (not sure about the unlocked price) which is well below the premium phones with often cost over $700.  It has a Snapdragon 626 clocked at 2.2 GHz.  It has Quick Charge 3.0.  There is a version with 4GB of ram which is the one I would recommend but they don't have it available yet and I have not seen the price for that version.  The other Moto Z phones also look great but for most users, probably not worth the price point.  I would avoid the carrier locked versions myself.  The Moto Z Force Droid looks great except it is locked on Verizon and full of their bloatware.  It does have the shatterproof screen, a larger battery, and higher end specs which is great.

We bought one of these.  We got the Verizon only device with 32GB so it only has 3GB ram too.  We also got a battery mod with wireless charging.  Battery life even without the battery mod is excellent.  Adding the battery mod makes this a 2-day device with moderate to heavy use.  With the battery mod fitted, the device is a bit heavy.  I don't mind the weight but some may.

It has USB-C and Quick Charge 3.0 but it will not quick charge on Quick Charge 2.0 devices for some reason.  It quick charges fine on all my Quick Charge 3.0 devices including car chargers and battery backs.  On Quick Charge 2.0 devices it just charges regular.  There are good Quick Charge 3.0 accessories out there relatively cheap.

Update: We have 2 of these, one Verizon and the other unlocked.  The battery life is outstanding even without a mod battery.  Add even the smallest mod battery and 2 days of heavy use is no problem.

Moto X4

This device is not actually announced yet but the leaks are getting better all the time.  We expect this to be released this fall.  If the leaks are correct, this looks like a great upper-mid tier device.  

Google Pixel 2  

This is sure to have the cleanest Android experience you can get.  You will pay for it though.  This will be the second iteration of the new Pixel phone line and hopefully they fix some of the issues they had with the first. 

Update: This came out and it has the best camera on the market.  It also looks like they did make improvements in the right areas.  Great device but you do pay a steep price for it.