Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Ok, I have to rave about my favorite thing for Android -- Tasker. If you own an Android phone, and you enjoy the process of fiddling about to make it more and more useful, then Tasker is the best thing ever.  It's an app that lets you basically attach various actions (changing settings, playing notifications, launching apps, etc) to various triggers (locations, times of days, phone sensors, phone calls/texts -- just about anything you can think of) in all sorts of interesting and complicated ways.  It's relatively expensive for an Android app (around $6), but worth every penny.

The only problem is the user interface -- it has a goofy unintuitive UI that makes it pretty cumbersome setting up complex profiles. I'd pay another $6 for a decent editor on my actual computer. (It's tempting to write one, as tasker saves and loads its profile scripts as xml).

That all being said, here's the things that I currently use it for:

  • When headphones (without a microphone) are inserted, and there's no media already playing, immediately launch my last music player and resume the last song.
  • Mute the phone on sunday during church time, and restore the volume afterwards.
  • Mute the phone if it's being charged after 10pm. (I always charge it while sleeping, so I figure if I'm up after 10, I want it to ring until I put it on the charger. And if I'm charging during the day, I want to hear it).
  • It checks my work calendar, and automatically mutes if it's during the time that I have a meeting scheduled (and restores the volume afterward)
  • If Sara's calling, it vibrates with a crazy different pattern, to make it more obvious that it's her.
  • If I get a call that's a non-217 area code, and not in my contact list, it's a different ringtone (I've gotten a lot of phone spam recently, so this makes it obvious it might be spam)
  • If I get a call from a number I've previously marked as spam, it doesn't even ring.
  • If I text a secret code to my phone (or Sara's), it turns to full volume, and rings like crazy (to help find the phone if we've misplaced it, or if I know Sara muted her phone and I need to get her attention)
  • If I receive a text message, and I'm in the car (based on being connected to the bluetooth device in my car), it reads the text aloud over the audio.
  • If I get a text message, and I'm not at my desk at work, it forwards the text on to my pebble watch. (If I'm at my desk, I get the text notification on my computer, so I don't want it to bother with my watch).  To check whether I'm at my desk, it does a web query to a URL I set up on my work machine that simply reports the time since the last input. If that number is bigger than a few minutes, it assumes I'm not at my desk.
  • I haven't finished setting this up, but I want to do the same thing with gmail -- if I'm not at my desk, forward the message summary (First few lines) on to my pebble watch.

That's just a tiny sample of what this thing can do.  There's a thread here on Reddit with people listing cool things they've made it do, and some other interesting samples on Tasker's site. Like I said, if you have an Android phone and you enjoy futzing around to automate your life, Tasker is absolutely worth it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

My Pebble Review

Since everyone and their uncle is talking about their brand new Pebble, I guess I can chime in with my review of the current state of the Pebble. I've had the Pebble for a few days now, so I've had some time to play with it and see what it has to offer.

First, the physical appearance and feel (the unimportant stuff). It's a little bigger than I'd really like, but still fits comfortably on my wrist. The included watch band feels a bit rubbery and cheap, although it's a standard band and easily replaceable, so I'm not too concerned about that (as a side: the Pebble makers seem awfully proud on their twitter stream about the fact that the band is customizable. Maybe that's because nothing else on the watch is customizable yet?) It's held a charge well so far (I charged it 4 days ago), so it will easily last a long weekend, which is my cutoff for real use (I don't want to haul along a watch charger for a weekend trip!) So overall, the physical package is decent, although nothing amazing or mind blowing.

That leads to the next part: the built-in software. The pebble was supposed to come with a set of built-in functionality, as well as feature an SDK and the ability to load custom apps. All of the promotional information about the pebble talked about integration with things like RunKeeper, ifttt, golf range finder apps, etc. Unfortunately, none of those apps actually exist. Pebble claimed that the SDK would be released before the watch was shipped, but there's been no sign of an SDK yet, no apps, and worse: no announcements about any sort of timeline for it. Without a timeline or any announcements, one has to assume that we might not see any custom software for a long, long time. So we're stuck reviewing what the pebble can do out of the box. And unfortunately, the answer is: not much.

The Pebble currently has a small handful of watchfaces. One of them, a text-based face, is well designed and nice looking. Most of the others aren't as nice looking, or are relatively gimmicky (such as a binary watch). So while it's fun to be able to switch watch faces, many users will only have one or two that they are actually happy with using day to day. 

The other two things the pebble can do are control music on your phone, and receive notifications. The notification system is the best part (or only redeeming part) of the Pebble so far. When I get a text message, it appears on my watch. The watch vibrates and shows caller id when I receive a call (And I can reject the call from the watch). It's also supposed to support email notifications, but for some reason, those don't actually work right now from gmail on many Android phones (including mine). So until those work, I don't really count that as a feature. It also claims to forward facebook notifications to the watch, but I don't have Facebook installed on my phone, so I can't test it. It DOES support google voice notifications, which I'm really happy about (as I do all my texting through google voice).

The music control is neat, and actually works. If you select the music app (a surprisingly cumbersome task requiring you to back out of your current watchface, dig through a list of all the watchfaces you've installed, and select the music player), it shows what song is currently playing on your phone, and provides the standard Bluetooth controls for play/pause, forward, and back. It's relatively cool, and works well, although to get back to your watch, you have to once again navigate through the menu to find your preferred watchface. If there's a shortcut to go back to watch mode, I haven't found it. The clunky interface deters me from using it as often as I might otherwise.

And so far, that's all it can do. To help a little, some smart person has written a 3rd party app for Android that lets you forward any notification from your phone to the watch, not just the few that Pebble officially supports. (I wonder why Pebble didn't just build that functionality in?) Still, there's no ability to actually control anything from the Pebble other than your music. And doing that requires navigating a relatively clunky interface.

I'm still excited about the future prospect of the Pebble. If the SDK gets released soon, it could end up being an exciting product. Or at least actually fulfill the "smart" part of the "Smart Watch" idea. Unfortunately, the longer they wait to release, or even officially announce a timeline for the SDK, the worse and worse the Pebble looks as a product. I love the theoretical future idea of the Pebble, but I'm not very impressed with the hunk of plastic currently on my wrist.

Pebble has said they first focused on getting the hardware right, and now they can focus on software. So if I think in terms of it being an unfinished product that they plan to finish later, it makes more sense. Because the watch currently on my wrist isn't by any means a finished product. I just wish they were more communicative about the timeline for finishing it.

I guess this quote from an article on TechCrunch about smart watches sums up my opinion about it:

A solid platform needs compelling applications. The promise of the smart watch is fine but, in actuality, it will take a while for this promise to come to fruition. By that time, I suspect, the mass of Pebbles will be lying at the bottom of a dresser drawer.
My friend who has a pebble has already stashed his in a desk drawer and gone back to a normal watch. I'm still wearing mine, hoping the novelty lasts long enough until the SDK is actually released, the promised apps arrive, and a finished product materializes.

NES Anguna

Well, I had a little bit of time still, while Frankengraphics is finishing up her game Project Blue, to have a little downtime on Halcyon, s...