Category Archives: Gadgets & Toys

The watchword

Like many other people, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Apple Watch. It hasn’t really arrived yet, you understand, but you can at least now see it, play with it, and plonk down large amounts of money for it, in anticipation of delivery in a month or two’s time. I spent quite a lot of time experimenting with it at the Apple store yesterday.

I must admit to being something of a watch techno-enthusiast. Back in about 1976, my brother and I were the first kids in my school to have a digital watch, and they, too, were made by a computer company, Commodore.


The company went on to create computers like the Commodore PET and the 64, but, unlike Apple, it made a watch before it did computers. Still, amusingly, it probably looked more like an Apple watch than any timepiece I’ve owned since, because the display used too much power to keep it constantly illuminated; the LEDs only lit up when you pressed the button. I still remember the excitement of staying awake outrageously beyond my bedtime, just so I could see the display change from 23:59 to 0:00. We bought our first digital watches on a discount offer. I think they were £13 each.

Roll forward about a third of a century, and I was an early backer of the Pebble project on Kickstarter.


I’ve worn it every day since it arrived, and I even created my own watchface for it. It’s been fun, but it’s taken the developers a couple of years to get to the point where notifications are reasonably reliable and the API is easy to use. Many people who bought Pebbles sold them soon afterwards on eBay.

However, the team deserve a lot of credit, I think, for kickstarting (somewhat literally) the whole smartwatch revolution: few people thought watches were really in demand any more until they proved, rather dramatically, to the contrary, by being the biggest Kickstarter project ever. The upcoming Pebble Time looks nice, too, and it’s worth pointing out that you’ll be able to buy it for about the same price as some of the standard straps for the Apple watches. I think it could be a good option if you want to explore this whole smartwatch thing, especially if you don’t own a recent iPhone (on which the Apple Watch depends).

The Pebble, despite its quirks, has taught me some interesting things.

One is that the wrist is a very convenient place for a user interface. Avoiding the need to take my phone out of my pocket is a great benefit; I can dismiss incoming calls in a couple of seconds, for example, if they occur in the middle of a meeting – much less disruptive. About a year ago, I did it without thinking in the middle of giving a talk, and almost got a round of applause from the audience!

Another is that I use my Pebble many times a day, but very few of those are actually about telling the time. Watches were important for that purpose in the past, when you had to keep checking them to know whether you were getting close to your next appointment. But I’ve long since relied on my devices to notify me in advance of any upcoming events, and I spend much of my time sitting in front of a screen with a clock in the top right corner, or driving a car with a clock on the dashboard. Actually looking at a watch to discover the time is probably something I do about once every other day. So, yes, I’m about to buy my most expensive timepiece ever, when I’ve discovered that I don’t really need a watch for telling the time any more.

Actually, to my surprise, my number one use of the Pebble has been to stop and start audio. I’ve described in a previous post how I listen to large numbers of audiobooks and podcasts, and I seldom do this through headphones. Being able to pause a book from the other side of the kitchen just before I start the noisy coffee grinder is exceedingly handy. Being able to do so with a couple of button presses when I’m out walking the dog in mid-winter and wearing gloves is even more so. While driving, I’ll often stop and start music this way, because reaching my wrist is more convenient than reaching the controls on my dashboard, and so on. This bit of my Pebble’s operation has always been very reliable, perhaps because it’s operating simply as if it were the pause button on a traditional Bluetooth headset. As with every device, in my experience, it’s when you start doing complex Bluetooth LE stuff dependent on background apps that reliability becomes an issue.

Now, I don’t expect audio control to be quite so easy with the Apple Watch, since there is no single, eyes-free sequence of physical button presses that will do it. Using the screen won’t be so easy with gloves on, either. On the other hand, you can just lift up your watch and say ‘Hey, Siri – pause!’ But the key point is not that audio control is the reason to buy a smart watch – it’s that you won’t know what you’ll use it for until you get one. I know now that having controls and a screen on my wrist is a valuable thing, and that’s why I’m buying an Apple Watch, and would do so even if it didn’t offer telling the time as one of its functions!

So, yesterday morning, as soon as the pre-ordering opened, I went online and started planning my order. Delivery times were still quoted as the end of April. Then I paused, cancelled it, went upstairs to get my debit card, came back down and started again, by which time the first batch were sold out and delivery had slipped to May. Sigh. Ah, well, my birthday is in May. I ordered two different watches, actually, on the basis that, once I’d actually seen them in the store, I’d cancel the one I didn’t want. A couple of hours later, almost every model was listed as shipping in June, so I’ll still have some early-adopter street cred. (A friend suggested recently that ‘early adopter’ was something of a perjorative term now, and I should call myself a ‘trailblazer’ instead.)

I quickly jumped over to my local Apple Store’s site and booked a try-on appointment, then headed into town. There was actually much less chaos in the store then I’d expected, perhaps because it was a Friday morning and most of the honest hard-working people of Cambridge had real jobs to go to. So I got to spend nearly an hour trying on different straps and watches, and playing with the software.


If you want general details, there are more reviews online than you could possibly read, but here are some of my early impressions:

  • First, the watch is beautifully made. This is no surprise from Apple, and you’d expect it for the price, but I was still struck by it. It feels slimmer on the wrist than the somewhat bulky impression given by the photos. The display is amazing – clear, high-contrast, easily readable: it makes the Pebble look very limited in that respect, though I haven’t tried it in bright sunlight. Reading even a normal text message on the old Pebble is a bit trying, but scrolling through longish emails on the Apple was just fine. And I’m now at the stage where I normally need to put on reading glasses for things at that kind of distance, so the fact I found it worked well without them even when displaying things like maps is a real testament to its clarity. And hey, displaying maps on your watch, with a little dot showing where you are! How James Bond is that?

  • The ‘digital crown’ works surprisingly well for scrolling. I was skeptical after seeing the videos, but it is very nice, at least for right-handers.

  • It really is difficult to decide which watch and strap combination you want simply by looking at pictures on line. Apple describe this as ‘our most personal device ever’, and that was reflected in the different selections being made by the cheery group of other enthusiasts who were gathered, like me, around the table. I was surprised to discover, for example, how much I liked the brown leather loop, which went well with my skin colour. (It was also interesting to see the majority of those other trailblazers, like me, removing a Pebble from their wrist before trying on the Apple.)


  • The straps are also works of art. Or, at least, works of exceedingly good design combined with excellent manufacture. Some of the prices are outrageous, though: take a look at the link bracelet above, for example. It looks a lot like the straps I’ve had on a couple of previous watches, and it costs £379. Yes, you read that correctly, and no, that doesn’t include the watch. I thought it was a typo when I first saw it on the Apple site. Only when you try it on, do you realise why that price is not quite as outrageous as it first appears. It’s unbelievably slim – much thinner than the photos suggest. The machining is superb. Each link in the bracelet has a clever little catch so you can remove or add them without the need for tools. And the clasp mechanism works beautifully. It apparently takes nine weeks to make. It’s still outrageous, though. I didn’t get one of those.

  • If I were starting now, I think I would buy the black aluminium ‘Sport’ one – it looks better than the silver equivalent, but only if you wear it with a black strap. This limits the options, but combining it with a black leather loop strap would be a fine combination. I didn’t go for that, in the end, because it wasn’t one of my early orders and if I switched I would have to wait another month, but for geeky guys who are less impatient than me, it might be a good choice. The silver aluminium, I thought, looked best with the blue leather loop. A third-party site,, will let you explore the combinations to your heart’s content, and the Click project on Kickstarter should let you use more affordable, non-Apple straps.


  • The icons on the home screen are a bit tricky to hit unless you have more delicate fingers than mine. Not as bad as I was expecting, but I still don’t think it would work very well while I was cycling. You can zoom in using the crown, but I imagine most common apps will be accessed more through swipe-upward gestures than though this screen.

  • The user interface is not really intuitive, I found. But that’s not too surprising, because we’ve no experience of a device with so much functionality in such a small space and with so few physical controls. It’s hard to know where intuition would actually come from. The temptation is to think of it like an iPhone with a home button or a browser with a back button, and it’s not quite either of these. I think it needed a new model of interaction, though, and it will be easy to learn once you’ve played with it for a while.

  • A pleasant surprise, for me, was just how well Siri worked, using the watch as a microphone. This was in a busy and noisy Apple store, yet it was almost flawless. (Note, too, that I didn’t get the opportunity to pair the watch with my phone: the watch has wifi, and Siri is one of the features that works even without the phone being present.) I’m particularly keen on this because I’ve often wanted to use Siri while driving, yet it’s almost impossible through my car’s bluetooth kit. I’m hoping the watch will be a much better way to do this.

All in all, I came away very impressed, and pleased at having got my order in early. The price will be a real issue for many people, and even for enthusiasts like me who might be willing to spend more on a watch that will last for some time – my old Citizen served me very nicely for 13 years before I got the Pebble – this one comes with a big question mark over it: how long will it be before I want to upgrade it?

In the end, though, I paid the money, because I think this will probably last me longer than a phone, should have a good resale value if I want to sell it, and I’m hoping at least that things like straps will be interchangeable with future versions. (If comparing it with the cost of a phone, of course, you need to work out the true cost of the phone once all the months of contract are included, which typically adds a few hundred quid to the label price – there’s no such subsidy for a watch. And your phone doesn’t measure your heartbeat!) But mostly, I bought it because I’ve discovered how much I value having a user interface to my technology on my wrist, and this is, without a doubt, the best available.

If, however, you just want to tell the time, then I recommend Citizen…

Update: John Naughton pointed me at this splendid Alex cartoon.

Plus ça change…

In the old days, I had to wind my watch up each night, and every couple of months do a little fiddling to make sure the date indicator was current.

Today, I have to charge my watch up each night, and every couple of months do a little fiddling to make sure the firmware is current.

…plus c’est la même chose.

The Memory Desk?


I like this analogue solution for storing sketches and other notes, designed by Kirsten Camara… but I fear it might turn into more of an oubliette! The blueprints are available under a Creative Commons licence if you want to build one, though; more information at Colossal.

Connected keyrings and wireless wallets

A Telegraph piece by Rhodri Marsden about Bluetooth-enabled devices. Excerpt:

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed, but there seems to be a race to reinvent everyday objects, connect them to each other wirelessly, then make a promotional video with a ukulele, glockenspiel and handclap soundtrack. We then willingly hand over our money.

Nice. He goes on to discuss devices which talk to your phone, and alert you when you leave them behind.

I like this concept, but at present the likelihood that the phone app is still running on my phone, and that the Bluetooth connection hasn’t failed (due to whatever mysterious movement of the planets causes Bluetooth connections to fail), is exceedingly small, even when set against my notoriously unreliable memory.

No doubt this balance will shift, on both sides, as the years roll by…

One for each hand?

About two years ago, I pointed out that iPhones were being born faster than people.

Updated stats from the latest episode of MacBreak Weekly: new iPhones are now being sold at more than twice the global human birth rate.

They can’t keep this up indefinitely!

Good Vibrations

TurntableNeedleAs a student, I was a bit of an audiophile, at least in the sense of making regular visits to the best local hi-fi shop, passing a lot of time there, and spending rather more of my limited funds than I probably should have on speakers, amps and the like. In later years, I started to realise that much of the stuff I was reading in audio magazines was complete rubbish, or overt sponsorship, or — more typically — both, and my attention drifted to other things. But I’m still interested in proper scientific analysis of what sounds good.

John Gruber linked to this article by Dave Hamilton, which explains why we record things on CDs at 44.1kHz and 16 bits. Quick summary: you may think you can hear higher resolution than that, but you almost certainly can’t. As part of the discussion, he linked to this nicely-done blind test on an audiophile site, where people were invited to download high-quality recordings of different pieces of music, play them back on the best gear they owned, and say which they thought was the 16-bit and which the 24-bit recording. After gathering data for two months, he published the results. Summary: you can’t hear the difference, even if you’re a musician and have very expensive gear.

Now, as Hamilton points out, there are good reasons for recording in higher resolution, because you want as much information as you can have in the recording, mixing, processing stages before you produce the final mix, in the same way that you should take RAW photos rather than JPEGs so that you can do more with them before producing your final image.

But when you actually come to distribute your final output, it’s fine to ship high-quality JPEGs, and it’s also fine to ship CD-quality audio. If it’s well-produced, then any more is completely unnecessary, whatever the sales guys may say! Unless you’re Superman, of course, in which case, thanks for dealing with that Luthor guy and still finding time to read my blog.

A Lightroom and Capture One Workflow

Capture One is a program for capturing, processing and managing photos, and it’s used by many professional outfits, partly because it is good at the tethered shooting that often happens in a studio, partly because it’s made by Phase One (who also create some very nice and very expensive medium-format cameras), and partly because its underlying processing of RAW images is amongst the best available anywhere.

In other words, if you have a good camera, you can often make your photos look rather better with Capture One than with, say, Lightroom, Aperture, iPhoto or Adobe Camera Raw, though it will cost you around 200 quid for the privilege.

However, for the normal importing, managing and editing of large numbers of images, I find Lightroom to be much faster, more capable and more reliable.

So here’s a little tutorial about how I set both apps up to allow images to be moved easily between them, so I can take advantage of the best bits of both.

Video also available on YouTube here.


A kind of haptic, 3D digital desk from MIT – very nice!

Thanks to Jo Paulger for the link.

I’ve seen the future, and I think I might be hooked

Philips-hue-bulbThere are more costly ways to light your home than by installing Philips Hue lightbulbs — you could, for example, send your butler on trips around the world to gather various species of fireflies, bring them back and cultivate them in custom-made crystal chandeliers — but I suspect not very many.

For those who haven’t come across them, these are mains LED bulbs that you install in place of traditional ones, but with the added benefit that you can change both their brightness and their colour remotely, from an app on your phone or tablet. Now, I am a serious gadget enthusiast, and I liked the sound of these when they first appeared, but I quickly dismissed them, for several reasons.

First, did I mention that they are expensive? By expensive, I mean £45-50 per bulb. Yes. Per bulb. They come as standard-shape bulbs with screw-fittings, or as those little GU10 spotlights which are so trendy nowadays. Got six of them in your dining room? That would mean… well, you can do the maths. If you don’t already have low-energy bulbs, you can make an argument that they’ll pay for themselves in a few years, but most of us have already had to switch, and my previous attempts at buying expensive LEDs have not been encouraging: the majority of them have failed within about 18 months.

Secondly, they seemed, well, a bit childish. I loved playing with multi-coloured light bulbs in my bedroom when I was 12 years old. But now, well, I don’t really want the house to look like a night club or bordello. It’s sad, but, as an old married couple, we seldom have the kind of parties for which red and purple glows in the corners of rooms are needed.

And then, of course, they come with screw fittings, which is terribly European, but in Britain we tend to have those somewhat-annoying bayonet sockets, unless, that is, we bought most of our lights at Ikea.

And finally, do I really want to pull out a phone, unlock it, find and start an app, just to turn the lights up or down? What will my wife, Rose, do, since she almost never carries her phone, and has only started up about three phone apps in her life?

No, in the end, I thought, it’s easier just to stick to our nice dimmer switches, and buy up stocks of incandescent bulbs from Amazon to use with them, for as long as the EU will let us.

And yet, I had some nagging doubts.

You see, I kept hearing good things about the Hue system from people who had it. “I bought a starter kit to play with and I now have 14 bulbs!”, said one person. “One of the few Internet-of-things products that just works out of the box”, said another. It was a bit like when I finally bought Sonos speakers, or a ScanSnap scanner – both were expensive decisions that I’ve never since regretted. People who have these things, on the whole, really like them.

But – and this was the key issue – I was very aware that this, or something like it, has to be the future.

Assuming we are not going to restrict ourselves to the simple on/off switch for all our future lighting — even if we don’t want colour-changing bulbs, but just dimmable bulbs — then we have a problem with our current model. LEDs cannot be effectively dimmed simply by turning up and down the voltage, as we used to do with hot filaments. Yes, you can buy ‘dimmable’ bulbs which try to work with existing dimmer switches, but it’s a bodge, a stopgap at best – they never do a very good job.

No, the right way to do this is clearly to separate the power circuitry from the control. In an ideal world, we’d probably run four wires to each lightbulb instead of two or three, but retrofitting that to any existing building would be a nightmare. So we have to keep the power lines, ignore or remove the old light switch, and use another method to control the brightness, such as a wireless signal. Now, once you can control the brightness of an individual LED, it’s very easy to put red, green and blue ones in a single package and control them individually, which means you get colour control almost for free. At the simplest level, companies like Auraglow make bulbs which come with a remote control: you can change the colour from anywhere in the room by pressing a little button on the channel-changer. It’s a fun toy. But any lighting system that’s going to stand the test of time needs more than that.

I know what I want from my ideal lighting system. It needs to be managed through the network. I want the lighting to respond to timers, to motion sensors, to external events, to IFTTT rules. In an ideal world, it would have a nice open programming interface, so lots of people could write software to control it, and my house wouldn’t depend on one iPhone app. Ideally it would use one of the established wireless standards, rather than yet another proprietary protocol, so there’s some chance it could interact with other devices using the same standard. I’d like the communications to be two-way, so different components could find out what the state of the lighting is now, and not assume that they already know; that they are the only things interacting with it. And it would be helpful if there were libraries for some of my favourite programming languages so that writing my own software, if it proved necessary, would be easy.

And the more I thought about this, the more I realised that Philips had already built my ideal lighting system.

It was very expensive, but I can’t imagine Edison exactly gave away his bulbs at the start of the last lighting revolution, either. I was willing to pay for quality. And I was definitely willing to pay to experience the future.

philips-starterSo I ordered the three-bulb starter kit, which includes a gateway that connects the system to the network. I explained to my long-suffering wife that this was part of experiencing the future, and she smiled at me in a bemused way that made it clear that (a) she was used to this kind of thing by now and (b) she fortunately had no idea of the financial outlay involved.

Converting them to fit in our bayonet sockets turned out to be an easy process, and I started to play. Within a very short period, I had ordered three more bulbs.

The first thing I found out is that changing colour is very valuable, but not because I wanted patches of purple kitchen. For me, it’s about subtle changes of colour temperature: morning light to high noon to evening glow to tungsten coziness. More about that later.

The only more saturated colour I use is a dim red (I call it ‘low glow’), which we turn on when heading to the TV room to watch a movie – it feels like the low light in cinema corridors. The lights on the landing also switch automatically into this mode at about the time we’re heading for bed, so that any late-night pottering about is done in a rosy dimness that makes me think I’m in a submarine, about to surface and not wanting to destroy my night vision. Run silent, run deep. A little while after midnight, they fade out over a 15-min period, so I don’t have to get up to turn them off.

It was even reasonably wife-friendly, since you can reset the bulbs in the time-honoured way: by turning them off and then on again. They lose their settings and come back with a pleasant warm white. Others have complained about this: if you have them in the bedroom, and there’s a power cut during the night, you’ll certainly know when the power comes back on! But for me it was a feature. All good so far. But it gets better.

You see, there was still the problem of having to reach for a gadget whenever you wanted to interact with them. I knew that this would prove to be too much of a nuisance, and we’d end up just flicking the light switch off when we left a room, which would destroy a big part of the experiment: I wanted to see whether we could usefully automate our lights so that you wouldn’t need to turn them on and off: most of the time they would just be at the right level. And you can’t do that if they’ve been switched off at the power source.

20140823-18271203Fortunately, there was a solution on the horizon for this, too: the Philips Hue Tap, a four-button switch which can be programmed to select different scenes, and which has a couple of really nice features: firstly, it can be unclipped from its mounting plate, so you can put it on the coffee table or kitchen workshop if wanted, and secondly, it needs no batteries! The button presses need to be fairly firm, but that’s because it harvests enough energy from them to transmit the signal. These were still tantalisingly unavailable on Amazon UK, but someone in a newsgroup mentioned that they had found one at their local Apple store. I popped into town and, sure enough, there they were. Not actually on the shelves, which were looking a little bare — “Someone just came in and bought enough kit to do their entire house!” — but they still had some in stock at the back. I went home with two, and they work beautifully.

The next excitement is that there’s a new bulb coming soon: the Philips ‘Lux’ – which allows you to control the brightness but not the colour, and costs about half as much as the Hue. We have a few ceiling light-fittings which take two bulbs, and equipping each of them with Hues would be decidedly pricey. So I have some Luxes on pre-order, which Amazon should deliver in a week or two. That was always really my intention: the Hues were a frivoulous experiment, I thought.

In the intervening time, though, I’ve found I really like the colour-changing abilities. I’ve always tried to get low-energy bulbs to be as ‘warm’ as possible, so they feel comparable to incandescent bulbs. Some people like a very white light, but in general I don’t want to feel as if I’m in an operating theatre. Now, though, I’m discovering that different colour temperatures are good at different times of day. The problem with a warm tungsten glow is that it is clearly an artificial warm tungsten glow. Our upstairs landings have no windows, so we often need lights switched on during the day, and having a very different colour of light from the outside world somehow emphasises the fact that there are no windows. Now, for most of the day, we just turn on some daylight, almost as if we’ve installed an extra window.

I, of course, think that it’s fun to be able to turn the entire house into a submarine by pressing a single, non-battery-powered button. But I knew that this whole experiment might be a longer-term success the day after I installed the bulbs, when Rose (who normally tolerates, rather than embracing, my high-tech projects) volunteered a comment over dinner. “I have to admit”, she said, “it was really quite nice having that daylight in the hall outside my study today.”

Yes, the system has its flaws — the cost, the limited range of bulbs, some quirks in the standard app — but I think it also has many qualities which point to what the future of lighting will be. And the fact that it has this degree of spousal acceptance — so far, at least — suggests it may also point to what the future of our lighting will be as well!

Fits like a… bluetooth headset

Cambridge is known for having a fair number of eccentrics (especially amongst those who haven’t visited Oxford).

But this is a good thing, because it means when winter comes along I could perhaps get away with using this in a public place:


It’s a bluetooth headset, built into the fingers of a glove.

As you talk into it, I imagine, people will smile comfortingly and realise that it was just about here that they needed to cross the road. This will help to ensure the privacy of your phone calls.

I wouldn’t try it when driving, though. You couldn’t really describe it as a ‘hands-free kit’…

Available from Firebox.

Sign of the times

My programmable remote control has shortcuts for various activities:

  • Watch Roku
  • Watch Mac Mini
  • Watch a disk
  • Watch live TV

For the last year or so, ‘Watch live TV’ has been relegated to the second page… and I don’t think I’ve used it…


Speaking to the future?

speakerconesFrom the “Things I should patent but probably won’t” department…

Predictive Loudspeakers

Yesterday, I was talking to a loudspeaker designer, who was describing the mechanical limitations of speaker cones. One of the key problems is that a loudspeaker cone is basically a mass on a spring. Once you give it an impulse, it will then rebound to its original location with a velocity and momentum, and these will all affect the sound that comes immediately afterwards. It also, of course, has its own resonant frequencies. And these factors mean that people have spent a lot of time trying to minimise the mass and resonance of loudspeaker cones or replacing them with complex electrostatic devices, or vibrating ribbons, or whatever.

Now, it occurred to me that as we start to get digital linkups to loudspeakers, we can do something we could never do before: we can predict the future.

At least, we can buffer the digital signals for a while as they come into the loudspeaker. As long as we do this for all of our channels equally, the delay is not usually a problem. (I am thinking primarily about listening to music at home or in a studio; if this was audio for a movie, you’d need to delay the image by the same amount, and it wouldn’t work at all for live PA systems, but bear with me…) We could then look ahead in that buffer and provide an impulse to the loudspeaker cone now based not just on what we want now, but on what we are going to want a few milliseconds down the line. The signal you feed to the speaker would then be the first derivative, or the Laplace transform, or something, of the sound you actually want to come out once delays, masses and spring co-efficients are taken into account.

Now, I’m not a control systems expert, and I don’t know how difficult constructing a dynamic PID-feedback system would be, but this is at least a very controlled environment, and the system could, if needed, be self-monitoring and adapt over time.

Such analysis could, of course, already have been done in other places that have access to the digital stream – like the CD/DVD player – but the earlier stages will not typically have much information about the amps and speakers. Now, however, the trend is towards active speakers which include their own carefully-matched amps, and for digital, even wireless, links replacing the old analog cables. So this becomes quite possible, and the market is ready.

What do you think? Anyone want to invest huge amounts of capital and help me make the speakers of the future? Or is this already available?

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser