Category Archives: Electronics

The Filtrete Wi-Fi Thermostat

I have never installed a thermostat before, but thanks to the help of several incredible community members, I managed to pull it off without electrocuting myself. Andrew, a long-time member of the LockerGnome community, turned me on to a Wi-Fi enabled thermostat that enables me to control my home air conditioner and furnace by way of a smartphone over the Internet.

Once I got the thermostat, I quickly realized that there is a little more to it than just popping out the old one and plugging the new one in. Thankfully, a plumber from AA Plumbing here in Seattle was kind enough to offer some basic advice on how to hook it up. This got me most of the way there.

He told me that I needed to line up the wires to match the way they were configured on my old thermostat once the new one was installed. At that point, I removed the old thermostat, painted, and installed the new one. At this point, I discovered a rogue blue wire that wasn’t connected to the old thermostat. It turns out, this wire is needed to power the thermostat. Old “dumb” thermostats didn’t really need to be powered, so the wire has been sitting there idly waiting for the day when a member of the LockerGnome community would suggest a better thermostat.

Unfortunately, I still needed some support to discover exactly where this blue wire needed to go and whether or not I needed to rearrange any of the others to make room. This is where another amazing member of the community, teesix (http://twitter.com/teesix), stepped in. He responded to my distress call and let me know he’s HVAC certified. After some back-and-forth over Twitter, he got everything sorted and the installation was complete.

Now, I have this incredibly advanced thermostat that not only features a touch screen interface, but is also Wi-Fi and Internet enabled. This allows the Filtrete Wi-Fi Thermostat to be controlled remotely by way of an iPhone app, and a web application accessible by the vast majority of browsers out there. As an added bonus, this thermostat even updates its firmware over the air. Yes, you read that correctly, the firmware updated once an Internet connection was established.

If anyone else has any suggestions on hardware, software, services, or anything else that might help me live a geekier existence at home, please pass them along.

Five Recent Technological Advances in Consumer Electronics

Someone asked recently whether or not I felt that the days of major technological breakthroughs were behind us. To this, I say absolutely not. Mankind will constantly strive to achieve new heights in technology as we continue to discover new ways to create and understand technology. Here are five recent technological advances in consumer electronics:

Multi-Touch
Until recently, touch screens were clumsy and inaccurate in general. This meant that either your area of selection needed to be wide enough to compensate for the resistive screen, or you needed to use a stylus to pinpoint your area of selection. Portable devices such as the Palm Handspring have been around for over a decade, though the requirement of a stylus and clumsy interface kept it from really taking off.

More recently, multi-touch devices have found their way to the consumer market. This technology allows users to use multiple fingers to create gestures that are translated to commands quickly. Computing platforms including all-in-one computers, mobile phones, tablets, and even some television remote controls have adopted the technology to allow users to use their fingers to navigate through a seemingly endless amount of applications.

3D Television
Whether or not you consider 3D televisions to be a fad, it has certainly had an impact on the world of consumer electronics. Now, instead of having to go to a movie theater to see your favorite film in 3D, you can take the experience home. While 3D technology has been around for some time, recent advances in how video is captured coupled with a renewed consumer interest has created a lively market for the content.

In the next five years, will every new television sold have 3D capabilities? All indications at present are that this is certainly a possibility.

HD Video Recording
If you remember how consumer video cameras and camcorders looked and worked five years ago, you might laugh at what dominated the market at the time. We are able to record, and even transmit, video in full HD from our phones when only a few years ago most televisions weren’t even capable of displaying video that by today’s standards is relatively low quality.

In terms of typical web video sizes, 320×240 and 640×480 are moving aside in favor of 1280×720 and 1920×1080 with 4k and higher resolutions in sight. The discussion has become less about will video quality eventually match reality, but about when.

Ultra-Low-Voltage CPUs
What do most smartphones, tablet computers, netbooks, and low-powered desktops have in common? They are made possible by small, ultra-low-voltage CPUs. These microprocessors allow small devices with minimal cooling capabilities to operate with enough computing power to handle a fully-functional OS like Windows or Linux. In addition to a smaller form factor and low heat output, battery life can be dramatically improved thanks to their relatively small energy footprint.

Wireless Connectivity
This is a broad area of advancement as so many independent improvements have been made in recent years, the days of having dozens of wires tangled behind your desk are quickly coming to a close.

Bluetooth keyboards and mice are becoming standard, Wi-Fi standards have improved to the point where connections are more fast and reliable, mobile broadband is becoming available in more areas with some speeds meeting or exceeding that of their wired cable or DSL counterparts, and even wireless charging is possible.

How to Make an Unboxing More Interesting

The trend of unboxing popular tech on camera has been around for years. While many would claim the origins of this form of gadget porn come from the much-anticipated PS3 release, videos and/or pictures of desirable tech products being taken out of the box for the first time may well be as old as the camera itself.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of these videos are frankly rather boring. A narrator points the camera at a box and opens it, saying pretty much the same thing everyone else that has unboxed the same thing says before them. Still, these videos are extremely popular, and that begs the question of how to make an unboxing more interesting.

Throw Out Practical Applications
Yes, we all know what the gadget is, and we don’t need a narrator to tell us what it looks like as we watch it being unboxed before our eyes. What users could find interesting are details about the practical applications of said gadget. If you’re unboxing a computer, explain what you intend to do with it and how this particular purchase would help you accomplish this. A look at the specs, instead of commenting on it being pretty, would be interesting as well.

Don’t Dwell on Packaging
It’s a box, made out of cardboard. Yes, it may have an interesting tab or padding, but people are tuning in to see the item itself and spending most of your time on the packaging and making the device an afterthought isn’t going to be interesting in the long run.

Personality
It would be foolish of me to say that I do the best unboxing videos, however, personality plays a big role in how your unboxing is received by the audience. If you are monotone, and generally unenthusiastic about what you’re doing, your audience will reflect that lack of passion when it comes time to hit the subscribe button or leave a comment. Offer more than just the typical gadget porn. Give them something to either laugh at or think about throughout the course of the video.

Extras
You might score extra points by unboxing more than just one thing in a single video. If you’re opening a phone or mp3 player, grab a case to go along with it and demonstrate how that particular case fits on the product. This will kill two birds with one stone, and instantly make your video more useful than one that just focuses on the same item every other tech vlog is fixated on.

Dear Fanboys: Go Away

Do you have any idea how much I loathe the fanboy mentality? I honestly don’t care if you’re an Apple lover, a Microsoft admirer or an Android proponent – you’re all equally insane! Being a fanboy does not mean you enjoy or believe in one product more than another these days. It means that you are so insanely narrow-sighted that you cannot possibly understand that a different brand may just work better for another person – or even yourself.

Hat tip to Chu Chu for this fantastic fanboy depiction!

I had an eye on Twitter a few moments ago, and noticed that a friend was sad to realize that her three-year-old HP TouchSmart is slowly starting to fade. This has been her primary machine since August of 2008, y’all. She works from home and spends about ten hours per day – seven days each week – using the heck out of this beast. I’d say it has held up pretty well, wouldn’t you? Through blogging, Tweeting, video editing and even gaming, this setup has never let her down. Not once in nearly three years has she complained about this piece of equipment being bad, wrong, cheap or poorly made.

Wouldn’t you know it – an Apple fanboy was quick to jump down her throat in a Tweet response. His response? “That’s what you get for buying cheap crap. You should have gotten an iPad.” Fanboysaywhat? Are you serious here? Any computer that holds up for three years under intense usage – with NO upgrades or hardware changes at all – is obviously not “cheap crap” as you claim.

This is what I’m talking about. This person is so blinded by his lust for all things Apple that he has failed to realize his beloved product wouldn’t even work for what she needs. (Let’s also not forget that the iPad didn’t even exist when this particular computer became hers in August, 2008!) Would you honestly attempt to use an iPad as your main computer? If you can then kudos to you. As much as I adore my iPad 2, there is no way in hell I am going to get rid of my desktop. I’m willing to bet most of you wouldn’t, either.

Here’s a tip, fanboys: lighten up. Learn to embrace the fact that other people have different needs, wants and likes than you do. Stop harassing them and shoving your favorites down their throat each time there’s a problem with their favorite product. Guess what? Yours isn’t perfect, either.

AT&T Admits It Cannot Handle the Traffic

The truth? You can’t handle the truth! This quote from the movie “A Few Good Men” pretty much sums up the way I feel about the news flying around the web today regarding AT&T. I’m angry – much as many of you are. Guess what, oh darling AT&T? We already knew you couldn’t handle our iPhone traffic. We’ve known this for nearly four years now. We’ve attempted to tell you. We’ve begged and pleaded. We have whined, nagged and thrown virtual temper tantrums. FINALLY you admit there’s an actual problem. Doing this a long time ago would have gone a long way towards keeping customers happy and loyal to your company.

In today’s FCC filing, the mobile giant admits that it needs help in order to succeed. It clearly lays out the reasoning for wanting to buy out T-Mobile: it needs the additional boost to the network. The company’s mobile data volume jumped by more than 8,000% in the time period from 2007 to 2010. As a result, its network is dealing with capacity constraints far more severe than any other provider. Sure, Verizon has the iPhone now, as well… along with other smartphones. But the sheer volume of this Apple device on AT&Ts network has brought the carrier to its knees.

AT&T claims in the filing that the buyout “will thus benefit consumers by reducing the number of dropped and blocked calls, increasing data speeds, improving in-building coverage, and dramatically expanding deployment of next-generation mobile technology.” With devices such as the iPhone generating more than twenty times the amount of data a conventional smartphone does, the network is clogged on a constant basis. Calls are dropped and lost. Downloads are stalled. Connections aren’t available. It’s a nightmare, and one which AT&T hopes will end with this merger.

The company has said repeatedly that there isn’t time to beef up its network on its own. It takes years to get proper permits and things lined up in order to build even one tower. Imagine the time – and money – it would take to erect enough towers to make the network truly stable again. This merger makes sense for that reason alone – but not everyone agrees.

Sprint is vehemently opposed, for obvious reasons. The merger will undoubtedly make the company an enormous one. Sprint wants the government to put the kibosh on the entire deal, claiming that it will create a “duopoly” which will prevent other companies from being competitive. Sprint also feels that the deal will raise prices through the roof.

As an AT&T customer, I sure won’t mind having a more stable and reliable network. I don’t want to sneer when the Verizon guy asks if I can hear him now. I’d like to simply use my phone anytime – and anywhere – I wish. I can see the point of view of the competing businesses and those opposed. I don’t know… what do you think? Is this a deal that should be allowed? Keep in mind that the data demands on AT&T – and all other companies – will continue to skyrocket over the next few years. Should they be merging together in this manner, or should they be attempting to build more towers?

Beep-It Adds Music to Light


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Beep-it is an electronic musical instrument that responds to light. Beep-it shifts pitch and tone based on how much light is available, making it an analog optical theremin. By casting shadows and reducing available light to sensors inside Beep-it, or by passing it closer to a light source at varying speeds, you can dramatically alter the pitch of sounds coming from the device.

Michael Una describes his creation in fairly easy terms:

One button turns the device on or off, which can produce a continuous tone or a rhythmic sequence. One sensor varies pitch of the output waveform in response to ambient light. The resulting system encourages playfulness and body movement.

I’m not sure if this little gadget is annoying or enlightening, but it’s definitely fun. I read about this on some gadget blog or another and had to try it for myself. I just need to push a button and listen as I move closer to (or further away from) any object with light. You’d think it has to do with the distance to light, but that’s not the full story.

Perhaps you’re a performance artist who wants a completely different sound and style. The Beep-it would be perfect for you! Wow your audience and amaze your own friends each time you grab this magical box. You can plug the Beep-it into an amp by way of a simple jack. Magnify your sound a bajillion times.

I’m an easy-to-please gadget geek. I don’t always have to have the latest and greatest product on the market to be happy. I like the simple things in life, such as the Beep-it. Devices aren’t only meant to make your life easier – they’re also about having fun. I admit it – I find toys such as this to be very fun. I’m addicted to making music with gizmos!

What Would You Say About the AT&T and T-Mobile Deal?

If you were given a voice about the proposed T-Mobile buyout, what would you say? Do you feel that your voice matters in this situation? Even though the $39 Billion purchase has yet to go in front of the government for review, Consumers Union wants to know what you think. You can send an email to The Consumerist to share your thoughts.

The combined company (if it gets the proper approvals) will be the largest US carrier by far. AT&T and T-Mobile together have about 25% more subscribers now than Verizon does. The acquisition is reportedly not about gaining new subscribers, though – it’s about improving the reliability of service overall. Additionally, the move helps AT&T prepare for the advent of 4G communication.

AT&T has been lambasted for poor service and dropped calls more times than it is likely possible to count. However, fixing the issues isn’t as easy as some would like to believe. The company is investing billions to upgrade the network. This isn’t a fast process, though, friends. It takes YEARS to get approval and then build new towers, especially in areas such as San Francisco and New York City. These are reportedly two of the worst service areas due to congestion. Yet – the company’s hands are tied when it comes to hurrying a fix along. This proposed cellular service merger will open up many new towers, thus improving service instantly for millions of people.

The Consumerist site has posted articles both in favor of and against this marriage of companies. Now, the site wants to hear your take on the venture:

Before the sale goes under the regulators’ microscope, CU wants to hear opinions on how the everyday consumer — regardless of their current wireless provider — thinks the deal will impact everything from rates to choice to customer service.

If the choice were up to you, what would you decide? Would you allow the buyout or would you throw the proverbial hand in AT&Ts face?

Apple Rechargeable Batteries

Last fall, I published a post which discussed the Apple rechargeable batteries. They aren’t manufactured by Apple, of course. These rebranded goodies are actually Sanyo Eneloops. They cost more when they come in the Apple packaging, definitely. The question of the day is whether or not they work better than other offerings on the market.

By all accounts, these batteries do work better than most of the others you could buy. They last longer – and cost less – than the Energizer or Duracell equivalents. Using any rechargeable batteries is a much better idea than using disposables. You’re saving money in the long run, absolutely. You’re also helping the environment by not having these little suckers fill up the landfill. They don’t exactly break down into an organic compound when they sit for fifty years.

Lithium-ion polymer batteries pack in a higher power density than nickel-based batteries. This gives you a longer battery life in a lighter package, as lithium is the lightest metal. You can also recharge a lithium-ion polymer battery whenever convenient, without the full charge or discharge cycle necessary to keep nickel-based batteries at peak performance.

The length of time that any battery will power your device depends on you more so than the battery brand. Watching DVDs will eat up your go-go juice much faster than using a word processing program. Similarly, gaming for hours on end sucks down battery power ten million times (slight exaggeration there) faster than watching YouTube videos.

Did you know that your environment can play a role in how long your batteries live? Extreme temperatures will definitely affect performance. In temps higher than about 95F (35C), your battery capacity can become permanently damaged. It won’t then power your device for very long on a “full” charge. You can actually damage it even more if you charge the batteries in these temperatures. Simply storing a battery somewhere really hot can also irreversibly hurt it.

Likewise, using your device in freezing temps will decrease battery life. Fortunately, this is only a temporary condition – quite the opposite effect of hot temps. Once the batteries warm back up, they will return to their regular capacity.

What type of batteries do you use in your devices? How well do they work?

Help for Jailbroken iOS Devices


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JailbreakQA is a site dedicated to answering iPhone jailbreak related questions. This week, Reza talks about JailbreakQA and how it can help you find the right answers to your questions about Cydia, jailbreaking your iPhone and any other non-standard uses for your iPhone or iOS device. Reza brings you tips and tricks to help you get the most use out of your jailbroken iOS device each week.

The JailbreakQA site is based on the OSQA platform, just like our Lockergnome Q&A site. Our site is dedicated to asking and answering questions of any nature, not just technical ones. Since most of our community tends to lean towards geeky things, that’s what you’ll find most often. However, I’ve seen questions about things such as cars, gardening and even dancing. To date, we have over 16,000 questions asked and nearly 70,000 answers have been given!

JailbreakQA works much the same way. People ask questions and other members give answers. You can vote up (or down!) the answers that you feel deserve a bit of recognition, and comment on any answers given to ask for more clarification. This site is a fantastic resource for those of you who may still be thinking about jailbreaking your device as well as for long-time “expert” jailbreakers.

If you’ve been thinking about doing this to your iOS device but still aren’t sure, you may want to read through some of the questions and answers on JailbreakQA. There are many people in the same position as you: they think they may want to unlock their device but aren’t positive it is the best option for them. You’ll find threads here which explain the advantages of jailbreaking – and ones which discuss any disadvantages.

Jailbreaking your device is a decision only you can make. I will give you the same advice here as I do when you ask me “which is better?” – do your research. Understand the benefits and limitations of a jailbroken device. Know your pros and cons. Decide if doing this is the best thing for you. If it is – then go for it. It’s your device, your money and your time. No one other than you can figure out what will work best for you.

How to Switch from Windows to Mac


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Long-time community member and contributor Lamarr has long been a die-hard Windows fan. However, as evidenced in this video, he is beginning a switch over to the other side. Whether Apple is the Dark Side or not remains to be seen. This is something Lamarr has researched and thought about for months. He is convinced that he is making the best decision for himself and his business.

That’s what it boils down to, folks – a personal decision. I cannot tell you what to buy, nor can I condemn you for your choices. Until I am paying for your devices, I’m pretty sure I have no say at all. It’s my job as a tech reviewer to give you honest feedback about the various devices and gadgets that I have bought or which have been sent to me to review. Those videos and blog posts are simply additions to the ways in which you can learn about each product for yourself. They’re not there as a means of my telling you what is the right thing for you to buy.

What’s right for me may well not be right for you. What’s right for Lamarr may not be what’s right for you. What’s right for you… well, you get the picture. This is the beautiful thing about the tech industry: we each have our own sets of desires and needs. There are millions of product out there aimed at fulfilling whatever hole it is you have in your life or business. Yes, it can be difficult at times to narrow down the choices. In the end, though, it’s your choice to make. Bashing someone for what they CHOOSE is pretty dang stupid if you ask me.

It’s a HUGE deal to have Lamarr switching over to Mac. For fifteen years, he’s built computers for himself and others – based around Windows. He didn’t hate Macs, but he admits he used to wish that they had never been created. The closed atmosphere bothered him greatly… and there were limited software choices years ago.

Lamarr’s vision of what “closed” means has drastically changed in recent years. Back in the day, it meant simply that you were limited by choices on software and portability. Today, closed (in relation to Apple) means simply that Apple controls their hardware and other features as closely as possible. Lamarr has begun to see the light – by having this control, Apple is able to deliver solid performance every single time. This also marshals protection for the users.

I commend Lamarr for making a change that he felt was necessary to move him forward. It doesn’t matter to me that he went from Windows to OS X. What matters is that he did his homework, weighed his options and decided what the best choice was for him. Hate on him all you want, Windows fanboys – but he had the guts to try something new and realize that it fit his needs better than what he had in the past.

Good on you, Lamarr!