Wearable Health

For a few years now I have “worn” a Fitbit One (carried in a pocket at least) most days. Relatively recently, my Pebble Time Steel watch added step tracking too. So, now I am typically wearing two devices that track my daily steps. Comparing them provides some interesting differences.

In a typical week, the Pebble tends to read slightly higher than the Fitbit, mostly because I wear it all night for the sleep tracking feature (sleep tracking is a whole separate article), so it captures anywhere up to 1000 extra steps that the Fitbit misses while I am not wearing it. 

Los Angeles Vacation 

Last week I was on vacation in LA with my family. The week consisted of a few different types of days that really highlight some of the differences. 

Here is the Pebble Health view of the week in Los Angeles:


That’s a pretty consistent number of daily steps. Monday an Friday we were at Disneyland & Disney California Adventure respectively, and we walked a lot. Tuesday through Thursday we were at the Great Wolf Lodge, and spent a lot of time in their indoor water park. While that involved some walking, it certainly didn’t feel anywhere close to the Disney park days. (The Sunday at the start & Saturday at the end were spent driving there & back, but we made several stops.)

The Fitbit captured a very different view of the week:


The most obvious difference is the much higher values for Monday and Friday, but also notice Tuesday through Thursday are lower on the Fitbit. 

Why the Differences?

The three days with low numbers while at the water park hotel are the easiest to explain: the Fitbit One is not waterproof, so it spent all the time we were in the pool areas locked in our hotel room. So, all the walking between pools and around the pools with the kids were missed. The Pebble is waterproof and I wore it the entire time we were in the pool. Not being waterproof is, in my opinion at least, a big limitation for a health tracking device. It is also pretty important for a watch!

The huge discrepancy on the Disney days might have had me puzzled if I hadn’t seen this before. The Fitbit is in my pocket, but the Pebble is on my wrist. While we were at Disney we had a stroller for our two year old and for some of the time each day I was pushing her around in it. Anchoring my wrist. I have seen this before with strollers as well as shopping carts. It seems to be a limitation of wrist worn step trackers.

Regular Weeks

On regular weeks, the differences are mostly irrelevant though. Here is the Pebble’s view of this week:


And the Fitbit saw this:


The first three days of this week have been regular commute days for me, walking between home/office and either the ferry terminal or bus stop. Tuesday I took the bus in to work (the bus terminal in SF is much closer to our office than the ferry terminal). 

Smarthome; Forgetful Inhabitant

Red Flashing LightA few weeks back I forgot to close the garage door. Not when we were leaving the house, but when we were already at home. A long time ago I upgraded lots of our house to have Insteon switches and sensors. The garage door has a switch/sensor combo on it so that I can both open & close the door from anywhere with Internet connectivity, and also see the current status on my phone. I also have it send me push notifications when the door opens or closes. When we leave the house, I am now trained to expect the closed message on my Pebble, and if I don’t get it, check.

We did that because I can’t count the number of times I was asked whether the door was closed when we were half a mile from the house, and we had to turn around and go back to check. But, when we’re at home, I don’t pay as much attention to the notifications. Hence the garage was left open one night (and my wife’s car, which was unlocked, was rifled through as were some boxes on a shelf near the open door – nothing was taken though, so I guess we don’t have anything valuable out there, or they were disturbed).

My Solution?

Since the garage door announces over the Insteon system when it opens and closes, my solution was simple: get a giant red flashing light (the one shown above) and an Insteon On/Off module to switch it on and off. Place this in the kitchen and “connect” the on/off switch to the garage door sensor via the Insteon network. Now, all the time the garage door is open, the red light flashes in the kitchen. As soon as the door closes, it goes off.

Smart home saves forgetful owner (again).

Pebble Thoughts

Black Pebble Time SteelIt is always a sad day when a company needs to trim staff, but at the same time it is sometimes very necessary to make sure expenses are inline with expected revenue. Today Pebble announced they were cutting 40 people from their workforce (25%). That’s a deep first cut, so hopefully for those left it will be the only one. The smart watch market is a strange one though. Even with the Apole watch (or perhaps partly because of it), the mass market adoption has been slow. 

What Pebble Does Well

Full disclosure here, I’ve had three Pebbles now (an original, from the first Kickstarter campaign), a Steel and now a Time Steel. For me the Time Steel is still my preferred smart watch. It isn’t perfect, and we’ll come back to that later, but it does everything I need. 

Battery life is top of the list for me. Even with plenty of notifications each day, I am getting over s week between charges. That is fantastic for somebody who carries two phones always (and sometimes more if I am testing things for work). Less devices to forget to charge every night is better. 

Close second would be the always on screen. I don’t want to have to make a conscious effort to look at the time. A quick glance gets me the time, and it is even clearer in sunlight than not. At night, I do still need to move my wrist to get the backlight, but a gentle twist works.

Notifications are the “killer app” for me, and the Pebble excels at them. If they appear on my iPhone’s lock screen, they appear on the watch. If the phone rings (very rare occurrence for my phone), I can see the caller ID on my watch & accept or decline the call (if I accept, I still need to get the phone out or put on the headset to actually talk). Since I am on AT&T, I also get the option of voice replies to text messages. That works most of the times I’ve tried it, but I don’t find myself using it much.

Waterproof. It is really waterproof. I can swim in it and not worry. 

What Could Be Better

The screen. Perhaps this is a case of the low power displays just not being as high density yet, but a really high density display (say 4x the number of pixels) would really shine. As would having the screen fill more of the face area; the large bezels are not great.

The software. Connectivity issues have been an issue for me on all my Pebbles and while the phone side is at least partly outside of their control, keeping the two devices connected and talking is job number one for a smartwatch. Additionally, not interfering with other Bluetooth devices is a must. Especially headsets and Bluetooth audio devices, both of which I have had issues with along the way. 

I would like to see some of the health information, like step counts, be included in watchfaces (maybe this can already be done and I just need to find, or write, a face that does it).

The Other Stuff

Health metrics is becoming a bigger space it seems, and Pebble was certainly late to the party. The activity & sleep tracking in the newer watches is a good start though. Personally, heart rate tracking doesn’t bother me, but that is not true for all. (If I had it, maybe I would feel differently too).

Timeline is another thing I don’t really use. The concept is good, but I am much more notification driven. Well timed calendar notifications work much better than me remembering to scan a list of events. 

Watch design is something I’ve seen Pebble be criticized for. The Time Steel looks OK to me & in fact is often mistaken for an Apple Watch at first, even by folks wearing an Apple Watch. The only real criticism of the design is the bezels. Smaller would be much appreciated! The screen really needs to get as close as possible to the outside edges of the face. I think the three new watches are a big step forward in design from the first two & I hope the design aspect will continue to improve. The look of the watch is very important. 

Carrying on from the look of the watch, the bands on the Time range (and the original Pebble) are all standard ones, with the included band on the Time watches coming with quick release pins. My Time Steel is on a third party nylon mesh band, and there are so many options out there at every price point and in all materials that it is hard to choose. If you go with quick release (sadly not available for my nylon band, though I am planning a mod to fix that), then you can change them in seconds for a different look.

Apps on the watch are not a big deal for me. I have two that I use (assigned to the shortcut buttons): the built in Health app for tracking  sleep & activity and Leaf, an app that connects to our home Nest devices. There are lots more available, but few that I really want on my wrist. Definitely not any web content reading or video apps!

Watch faces are something I’ve tried lots of (though still a tiny percentage of what is available in the store). I have my favourites, and switch between them occasionally. I also take a look in the store quite often to see what is new. 

The Future

I hope this downsizing is indeed a “right sizing” and Pebble can keep going strong. They have come so far, and I believe continue to supply something that the other contenders still cannot match (always on screen & a week of battery life), it would a shame to see them fail now.

The mass market appeal of wearables though is much harder to pin down. Health & fitness tracking will appeal to some, but I fear the things I value most in my Pebble will never be seen as more than nice to have (if that) by most people. Maybe the key to success for now is targeting the early adopter with a slightly higher end product. Early adopters will pay  more than the mass market & will upgrade more frequently. I am hoping Pebble isn’t planning to morph into another fitness tracking company with watch features.

Apple vs Law Enforcement

I’ve said a few things about this on Twitter already, but what amazes me here is that they are not asking Apple to turn over the key, or even to decrypt the data using a key they already have. Instead, they are trying to say they can force a private company to dedicate resources to writing a special version of their software, installing it on a device and then allowing the FBI remote access to the device.

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Android Marshmallow / GMail Data Use

I upgraded my Nexus 5 to the latest Android version. 6.0 aka Marshmallow, and didn’t really think much of it. Then, on Monday, I needed to run a test on some software that required the Wi-Fi to be turned off. I noticed at the time that the GMail app was having some problems; I received regular crash notifications from it (while it was running in the background).

Then tonight I checked in on my test and was surprised to see an Android mobile data warning in the notifications area. Tapping through, I saw that in the last few days I have consumed ~5GB of mobile data. On a phone that has been sitting on my desk without me touching it. The culprit? You guessed it, the GMail app was responsible for almost the entire 5GB. In less than five days.

Massive Data Consumption

I also received an OS update this evening, and since then the GMail app seems happier. I am back on Wi-Fi now though and will continue to monitor it. Had I been on a 3GB plan, I would have been more than a little annoyed (and had to pay for the extra data). As it happens, this phone is on a 20GB shared plan, so I have some headroom.

Pebble Time Steel: Initial Impressions

Pebble Time SteelOne of the new toys that arrived last week was my new Pebble Time Steel watch. This was one I was excited about as, despite some occasional problems with my original Pebble & Pebble Steel watches, I am still a believer in the platform and decided to go with the Pebble Time Steel rather than an Apple Watch.

I’m not going to do the traditional unboxing photos, suffice to say it came presented more like a watch this time (in very retail-friendly packaging, so I expect to see these hanging in my local Target store soon alongside the other Pebble watches they carry already).

The other big change is the style aspect. Personally, I like the new style, though I do agree with some of the other reviews I’ve read that the black border around the screen seems very large on the Time. It would have been nice to see a screen that went much closer to the edges of the watch. Of course, that would have made the screen a different pixel size to the current ones which introduces a bunch of complexities for developers, but we cope with that on Android and iOS, and even on the Apple Watch.

My watch shipped with only the leather strap. The metal bands for the Kickstarter orders are on backorder and will be coming later; I believe the retail orders only come with the leather bands though.

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Lima: First Impressions

The last week has seen two of my crowdfunding investments delivered. The first of those two was Lima. Lima is a small box that connects between my home network and a USB hard drive and promises to make my documents & media files appear on my computers, and mobile devices no matter where I am, or which device I am using. My own personal DropBox. 

The device arrived last week, but I ordered a new 4TB RAID 1 external drive for it that didn’t arrive until this week. Tonight was set up time. 

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Pebble Update

Given all the issues I had been having with my Pebble watch staying connected to my iPhone, it might seem odd that I ordered a new Pebble Time rather than an Apple Watch. For the last few months though my Pebble has stayed connected to my phone almost continuously. The iOS permission notification, that I used to see regularly, now really only appears when the phone restarts.

Intermittent Disconnects

Also, the problem where it appeared to be connected, but was not getting any notifications, has gone away after a factory reset of the watch (from the watch’s settings menu), followed by switching to recovery mode (press and hold back, up and select buttons for 30 seconds) and letting the phone re-install the latest firmware. The app reinstalled 

Not sure what caused the problem, but I suspect either the update process left something in a strange state or there is something that leaks resources. With the latest firmware though, I haven’t seen it again, so I’m hoping that was something in an earlier version. If I do see it again, at least I know the trick to getting things back to normal now, and while it sounds painful, getting watchfaces & apps back on the watch is automatic once the watch is paired back to the phone.

Audio Issues

I still get the interference from the Pebble when using a Bluetooth hands free system for voice calls. Most noticeable on in car systems, though either the latest versions of iOS and/or Pebble firmware, or perhaps my new car (same make as the previous one, but a few years younger) have made it less of a problem. I haven’t had a chance to do any testing with other devices.

The Bluetooth audio connections for listening to music were fixed with a Pebble firmware update a while ago.

Battery Life

For a long time after I had the issues with battery life (which, I am pretty sure, were actually caused by the Bluetooth communication issues), I had been using the Modern Longlife watchface. With that, I was getting 5+ days regularly from the Steel, with moderate to heavy notifications. I switched to Modern Neue recently, which includes a second hand, and I think it has knocked a little off the battery life, but it is still 5 days between charges most of the time. I have become comfortable with the 20% battery warning and know that just means I need to charge that night, even when it pops up early in the day.

The Good

As I mentioned earlier in my smart watch thoughts post, having the important things that happen online appear on the watch is great, and something I would definitely miss now. The watchface options are unbelievable too, and while perhaps not as pretty as the new Apple Watch ones, they are every bit as functional (perhaps more so if you take into account the fact that they on screen all the time and not just when you activate the screen).

On the app front, there is already a huge selection of apps, but my personal feeling right now is that few are really useful for me simply because I would rather use the watch to be notified of things than to act on them. I do like the Nest remote, but even that i don’t use often. I certainly don’t want to be reading anything longer than a notification on my watch (though I do wish Facebook notifications included at least some of the content too so I cou,d decide whether I want to get the phone out or not).

Crowd Funding Update

Back in August of last year I wrote an update on the status of the projects I have backed on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. Eight months on, only one of the projects still ongoing has delivered: Parashoot. Lima and Lono are still promising to ship soon.

I also have a couple of projects not on either of the two platforms: Coin (which finally delivered this week, very late), and Nymi, a biometric authentication project (still to deliver, but different in that they won’t take the money until they ship, so really this is pre-ordering more than crowd funding).

In the meantime I have backed a few more projects:

The Egg

A personal web server gadget. This one was a little personal since I know one of the founders, but I’ve seen one of their early units and the project has some appealing features too, not least of which is the ability to share photos with friends & family without having to upload them to a public web service.

Expected delivery: September 2015

Pebble Time

This will be my third Pebble, and I upgraded the pledge to switch to the steel variant once they announced it. Not much more to say about this one.

Expected delivery: July 2015

Titanium Pens

A set of three (because I couldn’t decide on the finish I preferred & the set was a bargain compared to one or two pens). And, yes, these pens are going to ship without a refill. But they look gorgeous, and the guy behind the project already sells lots of titanium products directly from his site and clearly has a passion for this pen project. It has been incredibly over subscribed though – about 3600% more than the goal.

Expected delivery: July 2015

The Leaders Guide by Eric Ries

A new book project from Eric Ries (of lean startup fame) with lots of unlocked extras. 

Expected delivery: October 2015

Coin: The Card To Replace Them All

What seems like a very long time ago now, I signed up for a crowdfunded project called Coin. The literally credit sized (in all dimensions) sliver of electronics claimed to be able to pretend to be all of my credit cards, selecting the one I wanted being as simple as pressing a “button” on the card.

Well, this week my card finally arrived, much later than they had originally estimated, and after a much longer beta testing period (which I had signed up to be a part of, but was not selected for).

Setting up the card was mostly straightforward (I already had the app on my iPhone and the account set up since they sent instructions for doing that part a long time ago so we could track our order too).

Loading Cards

I had a small hiccup getting the cards sync’d onto the Coin, but once I worked out that the trick was to wait for the phone app to tell me to activate the card and get it into sync mode, it all went smoothly. At least for the two credit cards.

The Starbucks card I tried to load was another problem altogether. The Coin ships with a small card reader that plugs into the headphone/mic jack on the iPhone (similar to the original Square card readers). That is able to read credit cards easily, but when it came to reading my Starbucks card it took a few swipes to get it to read, and even then the number it read from the mag stripe didn’t match the number printed on the card. I have a support request open with Coin to see whether that is expected.

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