FitBit Ionic Review

Since I received my Pebble Steel back in 2014 I knew I never wanted to go back to using a normal watch. Having notifications and apps on my wrist was just too useful to me. I skipped the Pebble Time, but when the Time 2 was announced I happily put in a preorder. Unfortunately it was not to be, and Pebble folded and was sold to FitBit. If Pebble wasn’t able to survive then as an existing FitBit user having them as a buyer is probably the the best option.

The idea of FitBit’s scale and expertise in building hardware, combined with Pebble’s excellent developer platform was an enticing prospect. Rather than switch to an Apple Watch (or Android Wear, although that would have required a new phone) I decide to wait for the fruits of the combined company’s labour to be released.

I was getting a bit itchy, and my trusty Pebble Steel was showing it’s age, but eventually the FitBit Ionic was announced. A few days before the official release date my preorder arrived. It’s now been two weeks of wearing it nearly 24/7, so it seems like a reasonable time to post my thoughts.

First impressions of the hardware are excellent. Most reviews have criticised the looks, but I’m actually a fan. I like the way the bands transition into the watch itself, and sure it does just look like a black square when the screen is off, but that’s the case for all current smart watches. The buttons have a nice firmness to them, and the touchscreen is responsive. I have had some issues swiping to clear notifications, but I think that’s more to do with the touch targets in the software rather than the touchscreen, as I’ve not had issues elsewhere.

The key hardware concerns are the screen and battery life. The bottom line is that both are excellent. The screen is bright and clear, even in strong sunlight. I’ve not tested the battery life extensively because I’m wearing it essentially all day. I only take the Ionic off to shower, and it appears to only lose 15-20% per day, and a quick 15 minute charge per day is enough to keep it topped up.

The one big element I miss from my Pebble is the fact that the screen is not always on. If you do the lift-and-twist “I’m looking at my watch” gesture then it does turn on reliably, but it’s rare that I actually do that. Looking at my watch tends to be a much more subtle movement, and then it only recognises it occasionally. I have found myself pressing a button to turn the screen on, which after having an always on screen feels like a step backwards.

At the moment it’s probably too early to comment on the software side. The core features are all there and work well. Notifications from apps, texts and calls all work. I’ve been able to track various types of exercise, including bike rides which were tracked with the built in GPS and synced automatically to Strava. Heart rate monitoring and step count also appear reasonably accurate, as you would expect given FitBit’s history.

Unfortunately the key reason I brought the Ionic – that they had Pebble’s software team building the SDK – is not yet visible. There are a small set of watch faces (I’m a fan of the Cinemagraph), and some built in apps, but as yet there’s no sign of any externally developed apps. It’s early days though, and hopefully a developer community will form soon.

So, would I recommend the FitBit Ionic? Yes, but more on potential than current execution. The hardware appears to be there, it just needs a bit more time for the software to mature and apps to be developed.

FitBit Ionic photograph by FitBit.

Steve Jobs and the Lean Startup

Steve JobsOn my 25 minute train journey to work each morning I like to pass the time by reading. The two most recent books I’ve read are The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries and Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (both links contain an affiliate id). Although one is a biography and the other is a book on project management they actually cover similar ground, and both are books that people working in technology should read.

Walter Isaacson’s book has been extensively reviewed and dissected so I’m not going to go into detail on it. The book is roughly divided into two halves. The first section is on the founding of Apple, Pixar and NeXT. This section serves an inspirational guide to setting up your own company. The joy of building a great product and defying the odds against a company succeeding comes across very strongly. The later section following Job’s return to Apple is a much more about the nuts and bolts of running a huge corporation. While it’s an interesting guide to how Apple got to where it is today, it lacks the excitement of the earlier chapters.

Eric Ries - The Lean Startup, London EditionThe Lean Startup could, rather unkindly, be described as a managerial technique book. It’s much more than that though as it’s more of a philosophy for how to run company or a project. The book is very readable and engaging with plenty of useful case studies to illustrate the point being made. The key message of the book is to get your product out to customers as soon as possible, to measure as much as you can and learn from what your customers are doing and saying. As you learn you need to make a decision on whether to persevere or to pivot, and change strategy.

There are many reasons why Steve Jobs was a great leader, a visionary and a terrible boss. One aspect was his unshakable belief that he knew what the customer wanted, even before they knew themselves. This is the antithesis of the Lean Startup methodology, which focuses on measurement and learning. Eric Ries stresses that a startup is not necessarily two guys working out of a garage. Huge multinational corporations can have speculative teams or projects inside them, that act much like start ups, so it wouldn’t be impossible for the Apple of today to act like a start up. Apple weren’t always huge though, and back in the 1970s they really were a start up.

One Apple trait the Lean Startup methodolgy doesn’t allow for is dramatic product launches. The Lean Startup is a way of working that relies on quick iteration and gradually building up your customer base. It’s hard to quickly iterate when building hardware, but early in Apple’s life they were struggling to find a market for their computers. The Apple I follow the trend of the time of build-it-yourself computers. Just a year later and Apple released the Apple ][ which came with a case and was much more suitable for the average consumer. This represents a pivot on the part of Apple. They could have continued to focus on hobbyists but instead they decided to change and aim for a bigger, but less technical, market.

Reading is a key part of becoming a better programmer. Whether it’s reading about the latest technology on a blog, the latest project management techniques or the history of computers reading will help you become better at your job. I’m not sure I recommend anyone tries to recreate Steve Job’s management style, but as a history of Apple Walter Isaacson’s book is inspirational and informative. The Lean Startup is considerably more practical, even if it won’t inspire you to set a company in the first place.

Photo of Steve Jobs by Ben Stanfield.
Photo of Eric Ries – The Lean Startup, London Edition by Betsy Weber.

Sonos Review

Sonos S5Recently I purchased a basic Sonos system, and after just a couple of weeks I’m already in love with it and have more music playing in my house than ever before.

For those of you who haven’t come across Sonos before, Sonos produce a multi-room wireless music system. The system consists of a number of devices that connect to each other using a proprietary mesh network. You can buy Sonos devices that contain built in speakers, or ones that connect to your own as well as a device to link your iPhone and to join your existing network to the Sonos wireless network.

I purchased a Sonos Play:3, a Wireless Dock and ZoneBridge (all three links contain an affiliate id) so that’s what I’m reviewing here.

The Sonos Play:3 is as fairly small, unassuming, single speaker block. It contains three individual speakers while it’s larger brother, the Play:5 (affiliate link) contains five. The back has a power socket and a network port. The top has a mute button, as well as a volumn up and down rocker. The other devices are similarly spartan, yet stylish, in their design with minimal on device buttons.

First you need to plug the bridge into your network using the supplied ethernet cable. Then, after installing the PC software, or their iPhone app, you can create a Sonos network. Just follow the on screen prompts and press the ‘join’ button on the device. For each of your other Sonos devices plug them in, select “Add new device” in the software on on the app, press the ‘Join’ button (or Mute + Volumn Up on the Play:3) and the new device will be found and added the network.

The setup is supposed to be quick and straightforward, and for the first two devices it was. When I tried to add my Play:3 to the network it would repeatedly not be found. The white light on the top of the device stopped flashing, indicating that it had connected but the PC software did not find it. It’s not clear what happened, but I may have plugged it in before the previous device had finished configuring. Doing a factory reset solved the issue.

The simplest thing to play on the Sonos system is internet radio. The controller comes preloaded with a huge range of radio stations. Just select the one you want and after a short pause it’ll come out of your speaker, on the other side of the room. Not only is process of listening to the radio incredibly simple, but the sound from such a small box is amazing. I’m not an audiophile, but it was loud, clear and had plenty of bass.

To play your own music collection you need to have it available on a Windows share. I already had this set up so I just had to tell Sonos where to find it. After short while it had crawled my complete collection and I could select by artist, album, track or genre right from my iPhone. As with the radio it’s quick to start playing and the sound quality is excellent.

It was at this point that I came across the first of the few bugs I’ve found with the Sonos system. Originally I had ripped my music into Ogg Vorbis format. Then, when I got my iPhone I had to rerip it as MP3. Some of my albums have both Ogg and MP3 files of the same music, in the same directory. The Sonos player does not appear to like this, and although it can play both formats neither would appear in the controller. Where only one copy exists the files were found with no problems.

I also had some difficulties when my network was heavily loaded. While upgrading one of my pcs to the latest Ubuntu and listening to some music it skipped heavily and eventually the Play:3 crashed. Another issue is that my music is stored on my MythTV box which turns itself on and off to record tv. I forgot to lock the box so it switched itself off mid-track. Somewhat annoyingly the Play:3 stopped playing mid-track as well. I would have thought that the Sonos would have enough memory to have cached at least the whole track, if not the whole playlist.

The iPhone dock is a very useful addition to my house, if only because I just have to slip my phone in and it starts charging. It is certainly much easier to connect than a cable, and much tidier too. Unfortunately you cannot stream music from your iPhone/iPod Touch unless it is placed in the dock. This is a limitation imposed by Apple rather than Sonos, so I have to forgive them. When it’s placed in the dock any sound your device makes will be played through your speaker. This works great when you’re playing some music or a podcast through your phone, but I had a timer set on my phone which was charging while I listened some internet radio. While surprising this is just it working as expected, and you can turn off the autoplay feature.

I have my old iPhone 3G as well as much newer iPhone 4S, and if I want to keep my MythTV box off I can dock the old phone and browse its music selection and select what to listen to from the 4S. This is the real power of the Sonos concept – all your music, everywhere in your house.

The criticisms I’ve made are small points, and despite only having my system for just two weeks I already can’t imagine life without it. I’m willing to forgive the somewhat high price and am saving my pennies to buy another couple of either Play:5 or Play:3s to spread around the house.

Photo of Sonos S5 by Robert Wetzlmayr.
Photo of Play:3 and iPhone courtesy of Sonos.

Making History by Stephen Fry Book Review

Time Travel: We Leave For New Zealand Today. by americanvirusThis book poses an interesting question, what would happen if you could stop Adolf Hitler from being born? Ask anyone if they had the choice, would they take it and I imagine that almost everyone would say yes. When Michael, the lead character in this story has that choice he takes it with both hands. Unfortunately though, things do not go according to plan.

Stephen Fry is a British institution and a well known upper class intellectual. In this book he is clearly writing about what he knows as it focuses on a post-graduate student at Cambridge. The book is full of colour and detail and has an air of authenticity that draws you into the world effortlessly. There seems to be a significant amount of himself in the lead character and he writes as he talks. At first I found the overly intellectual mode of writing to be annoying and distracting from what the author was trying to say. Persevere though, and you’re rewarded with a charming, warm and funny story that will also make you think about history and the choices we make.

This book can easily be described a genre-defying as the time-travel premise means it clearly fits into science fiction. Don’t worry though, this book is not about spaceships or lasers as the two moments of time-travel are tiny compared to their consequences, and combined with flashbacks into the two world wars, the book fits into historical fiction as well. Is historical science fiction a genre? It is now.

This book was first published in 1996, and if you haven’t read in the last fifteen years then you should definitely go and hunt down copy. You’ll read it and imagine that it was written yesterday.

Photo of Time Travel: We Leave For New Zealand Today. by americanvirus.

Why Does e=mc2? Book Review

The Atomic Explosion and Mushroom Fallout at Sunset by stuckincustomsRock star turned physicist Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw have written a book with a deceptively simple title, Why Does e=mc2? With a title like that you might expect that the book will be along the same lines as the New Scientist books How To Make A Tornado and Do Polar Bears Get Lonely?. Instead though, you get a book that takes you on a in-depth journey through deriving the equation from first principles* and on to the many things that it implies.

As you might expect for a book from two physicists it is a fairly specific book, focusing on entirely on the equation and the mathematics and physics that surround it. If you’re looking for a history of the equation and the Einstein then this is not the book for you. That’s not to say that it’s not well written, or not accessible because it is both of those things. The jovial nature of the writing and understandable metaphors really help you to follow the progress of the book, especially when four dimensional space-time is being discussed.

This book is well written, informative and entertaining. If you’ve ever wanted to know why e=mc2 and you’ve got a basic understanding of maths then “Why Does e=mc2?” will answer all your questions and more.

* Well, from an fairly basic set of set of assumptions.

Photo of The Atomic Explosion and Mushroom Fallout at Sunset by stuckincustoms.

Championship Manager 2010 for the iPhone Review

Soccer Ball by jbelluchI often pass some time while traveling playing a game or two on my phone. Being a football fan I was interested to see that a version of Championship Manager was available for the iPhone.

Early impressions of the game are good. The interface is polished with plenty of options and buttons to press. The game also features a pretty complete set of teams and players with all the usual statistics that you would expect from a football management game.

The key part of a football management is the match interface. Choosing your formation and assigning players to positions is incredibly easy with the touch interface. The actual view of the match is top down and feels really cramped on the small screen. Reading the text commentary is simple, but watching the tiny dots running around on the pitch is very difficult to follow. You cannot help but feel detached from the action.

Post-match you are often treated to a press conference where you pick a journalist who asks you a question. You then pick an answer from a number of options, trying to balance the happiness of your players, board, fans and the media. Different answers will improve your standing with some and reduce it with others. Oddly along with the text of each answer the game shows you the exact effect the answer will have. A really manager has to guess at how their answer will be interpreted, they don’t have a help set of red and green numbers.

I was quite surprised to see a football management game on the iPhone. Both Championship and Football Manager are well known for needing substantial amounts of CPU power and memory to run well even on a desktop PC. The game does run pretty well, although some of the menu transitions are a little sluggish. I’m sure it would run better on a 3GS rather than the 3G that I have. Another issue is that the game is a huge battery drain and you can probably only get an hour or so play on a fully charged phone.

While Championship Manager on the iPhone was never going to be a graphical marvel, but it is undoubtedly one of the most impressive games on the system. At just £2.99 it’s an excellent purchase.

Photo of a soccer ball by jbelluch.

FlightControl Review

On Friday I download a fun little puzzle game for my iPhone, FlightControl.

The premise of the game is that you’re running air traffic approach control for a small airport and you need to arrange for the two types of passenger jets, light aircraft and helicopters to land in the appropriate places without crashing into each other. A simple concept with even simpler controls. You tap on the plane you want to direct and then drag the plane to the runway. It will then follow the path you dragged out. It’s incredibly easy to use and really lets you focus on the goal of stopping those planes from crashing.

The graphics and sounds are excellent. The game has a great cartoon feel and although the menu and ui are minimal it has a very consistent look that clearly didn’t happen by accident. The map and airport look good and there are plans to add more airports to the game which I hope will be done to a similarly high standard.

The game starts off very easy to let you get the feel for the controls but the difficulty level ramps up pretty quickly and you’ll soon have to deal with five or more planes at once. When you’ve got two planes flying at different speeds trying to land on the same runway your brain will start to melt, but in a good way.

The game features online leaderboards which is a nice touch, but like with most online stats the leaders are way out of most users reach. The current all-time top score is almost 15,000. My best is 53.

My only criticisms are that the airport is perhaps a little large which means you don’t have much room to sort your planes into stacks as you wait for them to land. The game also has an annoying habit of letting new planes enter when an existing plane is right by the edge so they crash before you can do anything. A warning icon does appear to give you time to move a plane out of the way, but it’s frustrating to lose a game in what seems like such an unfair manner. Finally I think the game could be improved by putting ticks on the planes paths so you see more easily when they well get to a certain point on the map. A small marker every five seconds of flying time would be very useful.

The game is a great pick-up-and-play title, and you won’t be able to play it just the once. With the game currently selling for a greatly reduced price it should be on every casual gamer’s iPhone.

Wolfenstein 3d iPhone Review

ID Software have taken time out from letting you play Quake 3 in your browser to release a port of the granddaddy of all first person shooters – Wolfenstein 3d. The iPhone is really beginning to show itself as an excellent gaming platform, and despite its age Wolfenstein really looks at home on the phone.

The graphics are, quite frankly, rubbish. However, they’re exactly as they were when the game was released in 1992 which is exactly the point. The sound has faired much better and sounds great. The voices of the German soldiers still send shivers up your spine. It’s an extremely faithful port of the game, and the addition of an automatic save feature means it really works as a pick up and play game. It’s very easy to dip in and out of taking one level at a time.

The controls have naturally been revamped for the iPhone’s unique control system. You steer by moving your left finger over up/down/left/right arrows and fire by tapping your right finger on a button. This works really well and it is very easy to pick up and to start running around the Nazi prison that you find yourself in. The controls do rather feel like driving a fork lift truck. You regularly find your self reversing backwards around a corner, which is not how a person would move, but it’s easy to forgive and hard to see how else it could be done.

The game might seem a little expensive at £2.99 but you get all six episodes of the game which will last you many hours. It’s available in the App Store now, and for such an old game still shows its class amongst the other games available on the iPhone.

If you’re interesting in the process of making the port then John Carmack has written a detailed post describing it.

“Programming Collective Intelligence” Book Review

Toby Segaran’s book is given the subtitle “Building Smart Web 2.0 Applications”. It’s clearly been assigned to the book by a marketing drone who felt that they needed to get the phrase “Web 2.0” in there somewhere. Unfortunately this left me feeling a bit disappointed when read this book because it’s not really what the book is about. A far better subtitle would have been “An Introduction to Machine Learning”, but I don’t work in marketing.

My expectation based on the title was that the book would focus mainly on how to generate recommendations based on a user interactions with a set of objects. I was expecting it to cover not only the mathematical basis for such algorithms but also the practical implications that sites like and Amazon have to deal with processing such enormous data sets. While the book does cover recommendation systems they’ve given only a small slice of what is already quite a short book. There is no mention of how to process huge datasets either through map/reduce or some other scalable architecture.

The rest of the book is take up with classifying objects in a set, predicting the prices of a new objects given similar objects or filtering items such as email into spam and ham. These are staples of machine learning textbooks, but here are introduced in a very accessible and easy to read way. These chapters are interesting and informative but perhaps not that useful if you’re building a web 2.0 site.

This is a great addition to the O’Reilly stable of programming book, it’s just a shame they tried to shoehorn Web 2.0 in when that really gives the wrong impression of the book.

Programming Collective Intelligence
Buy from Amazon (contains affiliate link)

Sony DPF-D70 Digital Photo Frame Review

Technology is finally catching up with the principle of a digital photo frame and this Sony DPF-D70 is really good example. The screen is fantastic, really clear and bright which shows off your photos well. Getting your photos on is a snap. Simply plug in your camera’s card and click “Add to Album”. It features 256MB which can hold a lot photos at the frame’s one megapixel resolution.

The frame comes with a range of options. You can change how long the photos stay on the screen for, how they appear. You can display single photos, three photos at a time or clock or calendar view. It also features a handy timer function so you don’t need to worry about it using power all night.

On the downside the frame must be plugged into the mains as there is no battery option. Also Sony have skimped on the packing as despite having a mini USB connector no cable is included in the pack. Come on Sony, can’t you stretch to a simple cable?

Disappointingly the firmware seems to have few bugs. The menu system gives you the option to rotate a photo but when you turn the frame off the photo returns to its original orientation. This leaves that feature feeling a bit pointless.

If you want a largish frame with a great screen then this Sony should definitely be on your list of possibilities.