Amazon Fire TV Stick

Over the years I have owned a number of alternative devices to paying for cable and using a horrid cable box. First there was the Apple TV and I’ve now owned every version of the Apple TV. The Apple TV is a great product with a few exceptions. I chose Amazon for my Video purchases long ago due to their commitment to cross platform and cross device and would prefer that my purchases are playable on my XBox and other devices. Especially now that Amazon pretty much owns the kid’s tablet device market. Both our kids have Kindle Fire HDX (last year’s model) loaded with Amazon’s Kid’s Free Time App giving us some peace of mind. If you are in the market for a kid’s tablet I’d look at the “Kids Edition” which is basically a Fire HD 7 with a 2 year warranty against all the damage your kids might do.

It’s downright silly to get an iPad for your kids given that they cost a lot of money and require a lot of work to lock them down making them virtually useless for anyone else to use.

Anyway, back to the topic I’m writing about. A few months ago I purchased an Amazon Fire TV.


I wasn’t using it much when I first got it as there wasn’t any HBO content. There is now some via Amazon Prime, but word is that the HBO app will land by the end of the year.

Besides that issue, the device is pretty awesome. The most innovative feature is the voice remote. You can speak to it like Siri and not have to navigate around to watch stuff. Unlike Amazon on the XBox you can rent and purchase items directly on the device. And there is a Kid’s Free Time app as well, similar to the Kindle Tablets.

Any downsides to this device? Not really. It competes in a crowded space with Roku, Apple, and Google’s Chromecast (although that’s not really a comparison).

And the biggest difference between this and the Chromecast? It doesn’t require a phone, tablet or PC to operate. Chromecast is only for “casting” content from your device. Fire TV Stick is standalone meaning you can turn on your TV and play stuff without anything else. This alone makes the Chromecast a bit of a joke now as the Fire TV Stick also has the same “casting” features.

The device uses bluetooth for the remote, so if you have a custom remote setup, you’ll need one of the newer Harmony Remotes that support bluetooth.

Enter the Fire TV Stick

A few weeks back Amazon did something unthinkable…. no, not launch a phone. That was a bit of a disaster for them. They did something that’s closer to home and their strenghts. They took most of the functionality in the Fire TV (priced at $99) and removed some of the high end gaming features (which are really not what you’d buy this device for anyway) and packaged it up in a miniature stick like the Google Chromecast. Oh, and it’s $39.

The Amazon Fire TV Stick.


This thing is pretty tiny. It plugs directly into the back of your TV. That’s honestly pretty neat since you don’t have to worry about running cables, or anything else. You just need power for the USB cable, and that’s it.


When you plug it in for the first time, it will spend about 30 min downloading an update. And then it will be automatically configured for your Amazon account (just like the kindle).

Interesting side note. Amazon is really really pushy about using their own supplied usb plug and cable for this device. They are so picky about it that the device complained when I started it up that I was not using the supplied cable and plug. In fact I was use an Amazon plug (5W) that came with the Kindle Fire HDX. But that was not acceptable. There must be some kind of software/hardware based detection which I find rather curious.

The device comes with a small remote, not the same voice remote as the Fire TV. You can purchase that separately for $29.99.

Given a choice between lots of devices out there to stream TV content, my choice hands down is the Fire TV or Fire TV Stick for the following reasons:

  1. It’s an open ecosystem. Anyone can write an app without any restrictions. Not true for Apple TV or even Xbox.
  2. It’s cheap. The cost to having streaming is lower than anything else out there
  3. It’s a standalone device.
  4. It’s backed by Amazon. Unlike the Fire Phone, this product is core to what they do. Sell you content. And they are dammed good at it. It’s not a “hobby” for them.
  5. It’s got most of the apps you’d want to stream (minus the HBO issue).
  6. It’s easy to integrate into any TV environment. If you have a TV on the wall and can run any cables, you can use this.

You might ask why not a Roku? Seriously? When you have a choice to buy Amazon branded entertainment hardware over a company no one has ever heard of, the choice is pretty clear. Watching Amazon content (and even Netflix content) will be superior on this device. After all, this thing just runs Android apps anyway.

So, what’s the final verdict?

Exceptional. A spectacular product.

Unfortunately this device is either so popular or they were afraid of making too many, and it’s back ordered till Jan 15th. I got mine last week because I order everything like this within minutes of the announcement. It’s always easy to cancel your order if you change your mind, but there is no skipping the line if you wait.

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A few months ago, I started the process of looking into security cameras. There are basically two choices when it comes to these things:

  1. “Old School” systems that your Alarm company can install. These have been upgraded in the past years to include things such as High Definition, WiFi, Power Over Ethernet and DVR capabilities
  2. Internet Connected “Internet of Things” Cameras such as Dropcam or Simplicam

I got a quote from my security company for #1. It was about $3,000 installed with 4 cameras and a DVR. The App and monitoring story was questionable. The company that produced this camera had a few different iOS apps, all with 1-2 stars and nothing but complaints. This was a deal breaker. However, the idea of having a custom installer put these things in appealed to me. I am not an expert at placement and wiring outdoors.

My needs for such a system are pretty simple:

  • Monitor an indoor main living space in our house
  • Monitor the the entrances to the house (outdoor)

My main goal was to have monitoring while we were traveling, in case our alarm went off. And to have video footage for any kind of investigation. It’s a fact of life that Alarms go off for no good reason (motion sensors, etc) and when you are traveling the only peace of mind you’ll get is visual confirmation of something wrong.

I already have a Nest (best thermostat and gadget ever), and a few friends have Dropcams. Generally, like the Nest, the Dropcam has incredible software / service and quality. It’s dammed easy to set up and use. Nest (owned by Google now) aquired Dropcam a few months back. So now Google owns Nest and Nest owns Dropcam.


As mentioned, I needed cameras outdoors as I mentioned. A little bit of research and I found a company called Dropcases.


So, for the cost of 3 Dropcams, 2 outdoor kits, I was looking at $800. Well below the $3000 quote I got.

I then signed up for the 7 day Cloud Video Recording Service that Dropcam offers. For 3 cameras I’m looking at $200/year. Still cheaper than adding Video Monitoring to my security system. First camera is $99/yr and then each additional camera is 50% off.

So, How is it?

The quality is top notch. Setup is a breeze. The iOS app is incredible. The custom alerts are amazing. It’s reliable and works from anywhere.

One thing though. These cameras are internet hogs. You see the way they work is that they upload all video to Dropcam and Dropcam’s cloud determins things like activity and alerts. So it requires a constant stream of information to make these decisions.

As a result, each cameara pushes 2GB of data per day. So for 3 cameras running 24/7 you are looking at 60GB per month per camera or 180GB per month for all 3. This will really it into your cable operator bandwidth.

My solution for dealing with this is to set up integration with my Nest so that when the nest determines I’m “Away” the Dropcams activate. This keeps them running only at key times. You can also set up “Geofencing” alerts for the camera so that when your phone leaves the vicinity, the camera turns on and alerts are enabled.

I’ve really enjoyed having these cameras. They are neat for things like triggered alerts when the UPS guy arrives, the mailman delivers a package, or suspicious people enter your property. You can also create time lapse videos and save footage for later.

The only criticism I have is that these cameras are really designed for indoor use. Dropcam needs to make an outdoor camera. If they do, they will simply destroy the custom security camera market.

I have no hesitation recommending these cameras. I’d suggest starting with 1 camera first and then going from there. If you plan to install them outdoors you may need the following:

  1. Dropcases - I got the Case and Goose Neck Arm.
  2. Long USB cable – I recommend the 15 foot Cable Matters (longest cable run you can use)
  3. WiFi Repeater – I recommend the Amped 802.11ac. This is simply the best repeater you can get as it has dedicated bands for connecting to your wifi, and then repeating the signal resulting in no loss of bandwidth.

Final verdict?

I’m using a new system to review products (borrowed from MinimallyMinimal - great blog).

Dropcam gets:

Exceptional. A spectacular product.

Rating System:

Avoid. Mediocre.
Good, but nothing exceptional.
Great. Worth purchasing.
Exceptional. A spectacular product.

Leifheit Wall Dryer

Back to writing about some home related items. My wife suggested I write about our Wall Dryer since we love it, and just got a second one to increase the amount of wall drying space in our laundry room.

What is it?

The Leifheit Wall Dryer is a nice looking plastic device that extends out from your wall for drying clothing. It’s compact, looks good and does the job.


Oh, and it’s German. So it rocks.

Here is our setup

2014-11-09 10.02.02

Why did you get it?

We are super fortunate to have a 2nd story laundry room, and while we love that room, it doesn’t have a ton of space. So I looked for solutions for wall drying that did not involve one of those crazy floor standing aluminum drying racks.

How has it made your life better?

In an indirect way. It’s made Lora’s life better, and she likes it so much she suggested a post in the Newsletter.

Are you going to keep it?

We’ve had one on our wall for 4 years. We go the second this week. So yes.


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Microsoft Band

Over the past few years I’ve owned a number of smart bands or watches or whatever you’d call them. It started with my Casio Calculator watch. I’ve owned a Microsoft Spot watch, a few Fitbits and a Pebble Watch. I think it’s only a matter of time till we are all wearing some kind of stand alone device that is collecting body telemetry (heart rate, steps, sleep), developing insights from that data (in the cloud) and also notifying you of information. Today we all check out phones constantly when they buzz, and this modality will seem silly in 5 years.

I few days ago I picked up the Microsoft Band [$199 @ the Microsoft Store]. I was honestly surprised when it was announced. I didn’t know Microsoft was making such a device. Color me impressed that this was mostly kept a secret up till the launch.

What is it?

The Microsoft band is somewhere between a Pebble Smartwatch and a Fitbit in terms of functionality. You wear it on your wrist like a watch, and the only comfortable way I can wear it is with the screen facing down.


The band screen is most comfortable when facing down

The clasp is well designed

The clasp is well designed

I’ve used it for a few days now and the main features I like are:

  • Watch – you can turn the time on so that it’s on all the time. I assume this is responsible for my terrible battery life (about 24 hours)
  • Notification – when your phone buzzes, you can also have this information sent to your Band so you can glance and see what’s up
  • Calendar reminders – I love this as I can find what conf room I need to go to without using my Phone
  • Color screen – the screen is awesome, and color unlike many of the other solutions out there
  • Useful apps – Weather, Stocks, Starbucks
  • Body Telemetry – I like seeing how many steps I’ve walked, and I also enjoy seeing my heart rate. It’s just cool to know what’s going on there
  • Clasp – the clasp mechanism is like the band on a watch. It’s adjustable while its on which is neat.
  • Notifications are reliable - unlike the Pebble, this thing is rock solid.
  • Everything else – I don’t run, or use much else like calories burned, GPS etc.

What I dislike:

  • Comfort – it really need a curved band. The flat screen is rather ridgid. Although I’ll admit that after a few days I’ve gotten used to it
  • Battery life – It claims 48 hours. That’s probably true if you disable the notifications and watch features I enabled

Here you can see the tile layout and weather app

Tiles like Windows Phone, and Windows 8. You can touch them!

Tiles like Windows Phone, and Windows 8. You can touch them!

The weather app. Look it's cloudy in Seattle!

The weather app. Look it’s cloudy in Seattle!

There is quite a lot of customization!

The iOS app where you can customize all the tiles.

The iOS app where you can customize all the tiles.

Why did you get it?

It’s a neat toy. I’m not a fitness person per se, but if you are (and have a Fitbit) and were considering the new Surge, this seems like the same capabilities, except available today.

My prior experience with the Pebble ended with me selling the Pebble on eBay. That’s the same thing that will happen with the Microsoft Band after a few months. This technology is changing so fast, that this device will appear ridiculous in 2-3 years. Just look at an iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4 and you’ll know what I mean. Not to mention that the Apple Watch launch is around the corner.

But… I want to experience this journey, like I have all the others. Mainly for the perspective on how technology like this grew up. The Microsoft Band is a decent click stop on that path.

How has it made your life better?

It hasn’t. I mean, I enjoy playing with neat toys and it’s cool to see Microsoft going after this nascent market.

Are you going to keep it?

Till I get the Apple Watch


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Quartz – My favorite daily news publication

I’m pretty short on time. But I also love to keep up with world affairs. Previously I wrote about The Week, which is my favorite “magazine”. However, I do a lot more reading of random things across the internet, mostly in the form of blogs (Feedly is my favorite news reader).

I’ve been toying around with other various options for daily news. I’ve tried the New York Times “Now” app, and it’s just OK. However, a few weeks ago I stumbled across a news publication called “Quartz” that is produced by Atlantic Media.

What is it?

Quartz is primarily a mobile first news publication. There are two pieces to it:

1. Their web site, which looks amazing on mobile


2. Their daily digest – which is a very short and concise way to catch up on what is going on in the world (subscribe by clicking the little envelope icon on their website). It’s delivered early in the morning.


I really appreciate a few things about Quartz:

  • The mobile design is amazing. These guys have great designers
  • The content is professionally written
  • The topics come from all over the world, which I also appreciate.
  • The email digest is convenient to read or just delete. All your current “workflows”, that is if you have any, work well for digesting information

Here is how the Atlantic describes Quartz:

Quartz is a global business news brand launched in September 2012 for people who are excited by change. It serves as a digital guide to the new global economy. Designed for an efficient, mobile reading experience, Quartz serves business professionals who travel the world, are focused on international markets, and value critical thinking. Free and built for social distribution with no pay walls, registration walls, or app downloads, Quartz can be accessed simply at


Wikipedia has a better description:

Quartz is the business news publication of the Atlantic Media Company and was launched in 2012. In a 2012 news story, The Guardian reported, “Quartz is a fairly light operation based in New York and headed by Kevin Delaney, a former managing editor at Its team of 25 staff members was pulled together from prominent brands in business journalism: Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and the New York Times.


Quartz is a web-native news outlet and it differs from most other news sites by having scrolling stream of news.

My only complaint with Quartz is that they don’t have a native mobile app. I really like native apps because I get an icon on my phone, as well as the ability to get notifications for things like breaking news. Perhaps one day they’ll add that.

But for now, here is how you can work around that on an iOS device (and create a pseudo native app)

1. Go to on your iOS device.

2. Click the little up arrow “share” icon on the bottom


3. Select “Add to Home”


Now you have a shortcut that runs in full screen mode (like an app) on your iOS device.


Why did you get it?

I love news, and I’m short on time. So Quartz is the perfect way for me to catch up and stay in touch with world happenings. It’s free too which is a big plus (no pay wall)

How has it made your life better?

I spend a few minutes now in the morning catching up on what is doing on, and then at night I read some articles on my phone before going to bed. I’ve found a lot of interesting commentary and perspective that I appreciate a great deal.

Are you going to keep it?

Time will tell on this one. I see no reason to stop reading this. And in fact, by writing this post I’m trying to get the word our to my friends and readers. It’s worth checking out.

  1. Go to on your PC and subscribe to the daily brief
  2. Bookmark or at a Home Screen shortcut on your phone
  3. Set as your Browser homepage


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Picturewall – A wall full of photos in a box

Photos…. you have lots of them. I bet you look at your walls and say to yourself, one day… I will print some photos and hang them on the wall. Maybe your friends have one of this amazingly organized walls full of family pictures and you think, how? So much measuring, ordering, sizing and then printing photos.

Like this (this is a picture of our wall):


Well, I have a solution for you that is pretty easy, modular and expandable. I put together the above with two Picturewall kits and about 30 min of time.

What is it?

The Picturewall is a “kit”. Everything you need (including pictures) to occupy a decent amount of space on any wall.


For many years I had a few tasks on my todo list that looked something like this:

  1. Buy some picture frames
  2. Print some pictures
  3. Hang them on wall
  4. Make it look awesome

Years and years went by without much progress. Then one day, I came across the Picturewall system. This was made for people who just want to go from idea to finished. Here is how it works.

  1. Buy a Picturewall kit (or more)
  2. Print photos in standard sizes (I use SmugMug to print my photos, PicPlum is another great option)
  3. Insert photos into frames
  4. Hang using Picturewall system

Picturewall is basically the following:

  1. A box of frames
  2. A template you hang on the wall
  3. Some picture hangers you insert into the wall

That’s it. They have this ingenious template system that allows you to create many different layouts.


The system has the benefits that you can also easily remove a frame, replace a photo, and slap it back on the wall.

You will pay a pretty penny for this convenience though. These things aren’t cheap. I bet you the same could be done by going to Ikea, making your own template, and hanging the frames yourself. Remember my story about my todo list?

Why did you get it?

I basically explained this above. I had a desire to put some of the tends of thousands of pictures I have on our wall.

How has it made your life better?

I walk by this wall almost every day. It’s a fantastic way to look back on your most cherished memories. Our kids love it too! And it’s a hit with guests and relatives! Especially when you change out the photos with new ones.

Are you going to keep it?

Already have. It’s on the wall, so it’s not going anywhere. I’m thinking of getting some more.


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