The Future of Gaming: Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality (VR) has been thrown around the gaming forums a lot over the last year or two. It’s not a new thing. I am totally aware I am not submitting ground-breaking journalism here.

With the start of a new year, the discussion has come up again. Is this the year we see VR units in every home? Is VR really going to revolutionize gaming? Or will VR be another demographic divide in the world of gaming?

Continue reading The Future of Gaming: Virtual Reality

Nesting in the 21st Century

I’ve just had my third child in six years, and have noticed certain patterns about myself. For me, an early indication of pregnancy is uncontrollable irrationality. For about a week, I will be irrationally irritated with everything and snapping at everyone. So much so that with my second pregnancy, my husband said, “You better be pregnant.” I was. I crave greasy burgers from Burger King and strawberry milk from a dairy, but mostly I am averse to foods. This time around, I was averse to almost everything and hardly gained away weight. Each time I have been pregnant, I have waited for that nesting instinct to kick in, waited, and waited. I thought it had never hit, but as I look back over the months of pregnancy, I see a different kind of nesting. I nest with gadgets and gizmos. I reach for time saving technology and devices to make life easier.

Image: Reliable Corporation

The Steam Cleaner
This was the year we decided to potty train our second son, a mere month before my due date. I already have one little boy peeing in my bathroom, but with the addition of a second, the urinal smell began to linger in my home. During my last pregnancy I discovered the wet Swiffer to help me keep the bathroom clean. During this pregnancy and potty training I added the Steamboy 200. So now I can Swiffer the pee away and then steam the heck out of my floors!

The Steamboy is a pretty nifty gadget. Thankfully it assembles easily because the instructions were not compatible with my sense of logic. It asks you to “Attach the carpet glide to the floor head,” which is fine to say but it doesn’t actually attach. Neither the picture nor the description in the instruction manual help, but if you go to the company website they show you how it works. It glided nicely over all of my surfaces and the extension cord was a great length, deceptively long even; I managed to pull the cord out of the wall.

The microfiber pads say hand wash only—so I see great potential for hand made pads. But the instructions say mild detergent at 40 degrees will be okay, this is what I did, because the whole point is to make life with three kids easier, and they survived just fine.
Image: Sarah Pinault

Now don’t get me wrong here, this device is not to help me clean the visible stains caused by my growing brood. This is to get rid of the germs that follow them around like puppies. It’s great for kids, great for pets, and great for allergies. It does deal with minor scuffs and marks, just not deep carpet stains. It deals with 99.9% of household germs, so now when my son lies down on the bathroom floor, I know that his face is safe from his pee germs! It also cleans with just water, no added detergent, so he won’t have that nice Clorox smell on his face!

It can be really hard to tell if it’s done any good just by looking at the surface involved, but just looking at the pad after you’ve finished reveals exactly what has been sucked up. It’s quite disgusting really, to actually have a visual on the filth we’ve been wallowing in.

It’s nice and lightweight but could do with a hook on the handle to hang it up, and a clip on the wire to keep the cord in place. To use the clip on the top of the machine you have to wrap the cord in a particular way and that messes with my OCD.

Image: Courtesy of Behmor

The Coffee Machine. We have gone through many coffee machines over the years. Gevalia, Coffeemate, Keurig, we’ve tried it all. With a third child on the way, it seemed appropriate to replace our old models. So this time around we got to test the Brazen Plus craft brewing system from Behmor. Try saying that three times fast. This is several notches above where we usually like our coffee; we’re Dunkin Donuts people who don’t mind an instant cup. But I have to say, after working out how to use the machine optimally, it’s the best cup of coffee I’ve ever made at home. My husband spends as much time with this machine as he does with his Alienware these days.

Basically, this is the home version of professional coffee makers. The settings enable you to adjust for water brewing temperatures and the pre-soak function lets the coffee bloom before brewing. I didn’t know that coffee grounds could bloom before, but it’s blooming marvelous. Settings are so precise that you need to program in your altitude to allow temperature calibration. Water does not simply flow through this coffee machine; it has an over-sized shower head which pulses the water to allow “complete coffee bed saturation” to extract all the coffee out of the coffee. The Brazen Plus is one of  few home brewers certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. It is fully programmable so that your coffee can be blooming while you are still rubbing sleep out of your eyes, and when the power goes out you don’t lose your altitude settings; believe me this is a huge plus.

We followed the directions as to types of coffee to use, and experimented with local brands, and generic coffees. We find that Starbucks Pike Place works well, and more often makes a cup better than you would be purchasing at the store itself. Our favorite brew thus far has been the Dark Oak Roast from our local place, Scarborough Grounds. We regularly ship this to friends in Mississippi; it’s just that good. In a pinch we’ve used our old standby Folgers, and this machine elevates that cup of coffee too.

The drawback of having this machine at home is that we have become coffee snobs now. A gas station cup of coffee used to do us just fine, but now we have seen the light and we won’t go back I tell you, we won’t go back!

Once the machine is setup, it is ridiculously easy to get to good coffee fast, but it is also easy to clean up too, a big plus in a family like ours where it is go, go, go from 6am till 7pm with very little napping. We are not a napping house, and coffee helps us survive!

Image: Medela

The Breast Pump. I have had all manner of feeding experiences with my three children. With the first I failed miserably at nursing, but found success with my breast milk. So I exclusively pumped and bottle fed for ten months. With my second son, I went straight to formula. This time around, my surprise baby, I decided I would stick to it and nurse no matter what. Even with that in mind, I knew that, based on my supply the first time around, I would need the support of a good breast pump. Thanks to Obamacare, I didn’t have to spend $300 on the pump of my dreams, as it’s free or subsidized to get one these days. I did not upgrade this time, but went straight back to my buddy, the Medela Pump In Style Advanced. Easy instructions mean it is quick and easy to use the first time around, so you get comfortable with it very quickly. Sure, you will always feel like you are hooked up at a dairy, but it’s a much smoother process than I would have imagined.

The battery pack on the Medela is fantastic. I pumped twice a day for two months on the same eight AA batteries before it started losing its juice. The car charger works brilliantly for pumping in airports, parking lots, etc. This pump has the option for single or double pumping, and I have only used the single option once or twice.

Big advantages for this product: It’s one of the most widely used pumps, so parts and accessories are easy to find. If you save your pump for the next pregnancy, you can request new piping at the hospital, Medela generally supplies them for free.

I was ridiculously excited on the day I got the email notification that my pump had arrived at the house. I almost passed out when I opened the box. I never said I was normal.

Image: Reliable Corporation

The Iron. Every time I have a baby, I get obsessed with ironing little clothes, though this compulsion fades as the exhaustion grows. I used to do this with a $6 iron, but then I upgraded. When my mom moved to the U.S. last year, she took a liking to my iron; British people like their irons! So of course she now has that and I now needed a new iron. What I ended up with looks more like a space ship and you could easily fit my new baby into it! It took me a while to warm up to the Maven 100IS, but now that I’m getting the hang of it, I’m quite ready to build a laundry room just to accommodate it. The website describes it as a lightweight steam powerhouse, and powerhouse is right.

This is not the kind of iron I am used to—this is a lightweight iron that comes with a docking station. So the station contains the water and controls the pressure, 3.5 bars of it, and the iron that you hold in your hand is more of a conduit. This took a lot of getting used to, and the advantage for some people was a distraction for me. The steam comes out fast and furious; this is the commercial iron of the home and not for the faint of heart. Getting used to the footprint aside, this beast irons faster than most irons I’ve had before. The Velocity could give it a run for its money, but the Maven gets the job done. It takes 7-8 minutes to reach full steam, but can then run for 1.5 hours according to the manufacturer.

I wasn’t really sold on this new gadget until I accidentally left it running one day. I grew up hearing nightmare stories about leaving the iron on, but on the day I left the Maven on and unattended for over two hours, I couldn’t have been happier. It was no hotter than when I had left it, and had done no damage, either to the machine itself or the area it was in. If you are looking for safety and protection from baby brain in an iron, then this is the one. It may not have made my life significantly easier with regards to my ironing needs, but the security of this over use knowledge is worth its weight in gold. I need protecting from myself after all.

Baby Swing. What on earth happened to baby swings in the last five years? I went to Babies R Us to register and couldn’t find a nice simple swing with a small footprint. They were all enormous with bells and whistles, so to speak. This time around we are doing quite well without a swing. A happy baby and a mama who doesn’t want to put her down will do that.

There are many gadgets designed by companies to make things easier, or at least seem easier for parents, and a lot of them we do without. We didn’t sign up for bottle warmers when we bottle fed but used a glass jug and boiling water. We have never subscribed to a wipe warmer; we breed ’em tough in New England. Our humidifier is cast iron and on our stove top, our nightlights are the twinkle stars on the ceiling. Of course my husband thinks a Steambox will help him with the nesting phase; I say the tax return in 2016 will help him with the Steambox phase!

My third pregnancy may not have produced any scrapbooks or decoupage, I may not have repainted and re-ordered everything, but I certainly managed to accumulate some time-saving and brain-saving gadgets to help us get through babyhood with three kids in the house. I’d love to hear how you nest; head on over to our Facebook page and let me know.

Protect Your Photos, Video, Documents, and Data With Drobo

I’m a bit particular about making sure I back up all of my important files. And, to me, they are all important. Baby photos, things I’ve written, movies, songs… I worry about losing it, so I’m always on the lookout for the perfect backup storage solution.

A number of years ago, I learned about RAID systems from a friend of mine who knows way more about computer hardware than I do. They made it sound easy, but, of course, there was plenty to know that they weren’t mentioning. When I looked into getting something like that to back up my data, it was like reading a foreign language.

I’ve had other useful external hard drives that worked well, but weren’t protected against drive failure. Thus, I still felt like my data wasn’t as secure as it wanted to be. And as someone who works on the internet, that’s important. But I have finally found the solution.

Continue reading Protect Your Photos, Video, Documents, and Data With Drobo

Microsoft Continues to Innovate Portable Computing

Microsoft recently announced the newest in their line of Microsoft-branded computers. They’ve updated the Surface Pro to model number 4, and they’ve come out with the Surface Book, which is a larger, beefier, more powerful machine that looks more like a laptop than the other Surface models.

It seems that most laptops these days have touch screens, and tablets are everywhere. But convertible machines where the screen detaches and can be used as its own thing with a sophisticated, pressure-sensitive stylus are not the norm. I’m very glad to be seeing Microsoft think outside the box. And for people solidly in the PC world, these new offerings expand their purchasing options.

Continue reading Microsoft Continues to Innovate Portable Computing

How V-MODA Headphones Brought Me Peace and Focus

Image: V-MODA
Image: V-MODA

I’ve never had fancy headphones. The $30 Logitech ones from the office supply store were sufficient for years. Not stellar, but they got the job done, until one day recently when my cat freaked out on my lap and tore the cord in two. Since then, I’ve hobbled along with even lower-end headphones, or ones I borrowed from family members.

Before, I only used headphones when I had to, such as for transcription work, for the occasional video, and to do my daily Duolingo German lessons. But my old headphones sat on my ears, which is quite uncomfortable after a while. Thus, I couldn’t wear them for long, and I never felt truly in whatever adventure I was having at my computer. Every noise distracted me, and when no one was home, I still felt separated from my computer experience.

Until now [cue dramatic music].

Image: V-MODA
Image: V-MODA

The V-MODA Crossfade M-100 headphones are over-ear, noise-isolating headphones that are comfortable to wear for long periods of time. They help cut the sound of noisy things around you, and, important in our house, the people around you aren’t bothered by the sound of what you are listening to. Made with a steel frame, these headphones are strong and cool to the touch, and the over-ear cushions are velvety soft. The headphones also fold up quite compactly for travel, and come with their own hard-sided travel case with carabiner clip. The set also comes with two Kevlar-reinforced cords: one normal black one, and one black and red one that can easily be daisy-chained or used to share music with a friend, or, as I often do, my kids. You can also change which headphone ear the cord attaches to. The set also comes with a 3.5mm stereo jack to 1/4-inch stereo plug adapter.

The standard headphones don’t come with a matching microphone, but you can easily add one on to your order to use for those Skype or Google Hangout business meetings and webinars. (I’m not the only one who has those, right?) For people who like to personalize their gear, custom shields can be purchased and swapped out, and they are even available in precious metals or with your custom design embossed on them. Not my style, but everyone’s different. Different-sized ear cushions are also available. The included size works well for me, but they are too small for my husband, Rory. In addition, V-MODA makes coiled and other kinds of accessory cords.

The quality of the V-MODA headphones is apparent. They are on the heavier side, which took a little getting used to, but it just makes them feel more substantial. I know when I am wearing my headphones. And whenever I place them on my head, I feel like I’m taking a trip away from it all. Quality, smooth sound at any level. These jaunts into business calls, instructional lessons, transcription work, ambient writing noise, or adorable cat videos make me feel like I’m in another world, decreasing my stress, increasing my focus, being more productive because less noise clutter brings me peace. And, yet, I’m still available to my family at all times.

These may very well be the last pair of headphones I’ll need for some time to come since they are so sturdy. In case my cat decides to get creative again, the cord unplugs from the headphones, so another freak-out won’t destroy the whole set. If anything goes wrong, I can just replace the cord, but that is not likely to be needed, with how strong and durable they are.

The award-winning V-MODA Crossfade M-100 headphones are available in a few different colors, even before you customize them with a shield, and serve as an oasis in an otherwise chaotic life. You can be totally focused on whatever sound you’re listening to, but there is still just enough ambient noise to still have one foot in the rest of the room. And if you wear them without any sound coming through them, you can hear what’s going on around you quite well. I find that very helpful.

Full specs can be found on the V-MODA site.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Amazon Echo: Did It Change My Life?

Amazon Echo Location
Amazon Echo in our home. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

I’ve been an Amazon Prime member since December 25, 2011. I ordered my first Kindle that month, and the Amazon Prime membership tagged along with it. I’ve been very happy with Prime shipping ever since, and occasionally I use Prime Video or Prime Music. When the Amazon Echo was announced, I wanted to hop on the bandwagon right away and order one, but I waited a bit to see what others had to say about it. I also needed to consider the value-to-cost ratio. Would our family really use it?

On July 2, our Echo arrived, and our adventure began.

GeekDad Z recently reviewed the Echo and all the functions delivered with it, so I won’t repeat those. However, I’m pleased to report that I get an email about once a week announcing newly added features. For example, this week, Echo added support for three third-party developed skills: Crystal Ball, Math Puzzles, and StubHub. Crystal Ball is a fortune teller. You think of a yes/no question, and Echo will answer it for you. I wondered if the sky is really blue and when I tried it out, Echo said, “Maybe.” If you really want to know why the sky is blue, read GeekMom Patricia’s post. Math Puzzles gives you a list of numbers and asks you what the next number will be. I found this hard to do in my head, but fun if I got out a sheet of paper and wrote the number list down. You have to think fast before Echo times out. StubHub helps you find out what’s going on in your town this weekend or on a specific date. You have the option of going into the Skills category of the Echo app on your smartphone to decide whether to enable these new skills or not. Why not?

Now that I’ve been using Echo for 45 days, what do I think? I love to be in on new tech. The Echo certainly classifies, but is Echo really changing my life? Although I would order it again without hesitation, the answer, sadly, is, “No.”

The first few days, we were talking to Echo hourly, testing out her skills. She does a great job telling you the current weather, looking up interesting facts on Wikipedia, and setting alarms. However, you can do all of these things from your smartphone too. Eventually, the newness of talking to Echo instead of pressing a few buttons on my smartphone wore off. Instead of interacting with her multiple times a day, we were down to only one or two times a day, even missing days sometimes.

The kids love to ask Echo jokes. She has that feature built-in, and it can be a lot of fun. The developers even update her with new jokes on a regular basis. What happens though, is that my kids try to outdo each other and end up talking at the same time. Poor Echo is confused. It’s hard enough for the software to clearly understand one person talking in a normal voice. Imagine what happens when two or more excited kids start shouting multiple commands to the device at the same time. Of course, this is not a deficiency in just Echo. Any voice recognition device will have the same difficulty. You can train Echo to your voice, but I don’t think you can train her to multiple voices. And, there’s no good way to get her to isolate one voice out of many talking at the same time.

Primarily, we use Echo to set alarms. “Alexa, set an alarm for 5:15 p.m. today.” That’s a good reminder to go preheat the oven for dinner. If I think I might fall asleep before it’s time to pick up the kids from school, I can set an “end nap time” alarm. Alarms are a great way to manage my day. Echo will even allow you to set multiple alarms and timers. However, what happens is that sometimes the alarm goes off and you have no idea why. Seriously, one day it went off, and it took us 15 minutes to figure out why we had set the alarm hours ago. I have submitted a new function request to Amazon Echo Support asking them to allow a description to be added to the alarm. I would be tickled pink if the alarm went off and Echo said something like, “8:30 p.m. alarm—time for Joey and Johnny to get ready for bed.”

We were very hopeful that Echo would help us nag the kids with less involvement from us. We want Echo to tell them to go to bed, remind them to brush their teeth, wake them up in the morning, etc. Besides the alarms not providing a description, there’s also the problem of needing Echo in more than one location in the house. The current price for Amazon Echo is $179.99. It’s a serious investment to buy one of these devices, let alone two or more to give coverage all over your home. In our house, three would be about the minimum. We’d like one in our kitchen/family room area, the boys’ TV room, and the boys’ bedroom. The master bedroom would be nice too. We ended up putting the one we bought in our kitchen/family room area, where everyone in the house has good access to it. However, this prevents us from using it as an alarm clock or a kid-friendly reminder device.

Amazon Echo supports a wide range of home automation devices (lights and switches) including Philips Hue, Wink, and WeMo. You can turn your lights on and off with a voice command to Echo. This is a super cool feature, in my opinion. The only problem is that we invested in a SmartThings hub a couple of years ago, and Echo doesn’t support SmartThings (yet). We knew that when we bought Echo, and we still hope that SmartThings will get added. It’s either that or we’re going to have to buy a new hub with a price tag of $49 or more. For now, we use the SmartThings app on our smartphone to control our lights when desired. We use the switches to turn on/off outside fountains, Christmas lights, and to manage our primary entry door lock.

Then there’s the issue of music. Echo does a great job playing music and podcasts from Amazon Prime, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn. When I’m in the mood, I’ll ask her to play something for me, and I enjoy it. The problem is that the music library I’ve been building for years is on iTunes. I think Amazon with Prime Music and Google with Play Music are nuts if they think I’m going to rebuild my library in their store. Not happening! Until I can play my iTunes music and playlists on Echo, which I realize will never happen, I’ll just keeping using the Bluetooth speakers we have in strategic locations around our house to play my usual music from my iPhone or iPad.

It’s great that we can engage Echo to help us whenever we want, but we’d also like her to engage us sometimes. For example, I have my Google calendar hooked up to her. I can ask her what’s on my calendar today, and she gives me an accurate response. What I really want is for her to remind me about certain calendar events a given amount of time before them. If I have a 9:00 a.m. dentist appointment, I want her to wake up at 8:00 a.m. and say something like, “Maryann, you have a dentist appointment with Dr. ABC at 9:00 a.m. in XYZ.” It doesn’t do me any good to get an email reminder on my phone; I may not see that in time. I don’t want the reminder to be reliant on my remembering to ask for my daily schedule. Right now, we use sticky notes on our primary entrance/exit door or our bathroom mirror to remind us of events that deviate from our normal routine. I’ve even put a sticky note on the steering wheel of my minivan, so that when I go to leave to take the kids to school in the morning I don’t forget to do something. Echo could remind me so much better!

As I said at the start of this review, if I had it to do over, I’d still buy Amazon Echo. I see huge potential in this device and others like it, and I love being on the bleeding edge of this new technology. Besides alarms with descriptions, I have submitted several other new function requests to Amazon Echo Support. I’ve asked them to let Echo act as a calculator. I want to say, “Alexa, what is 3 + 5?” or “Alexa, add $5.23 and $11.37.” I would love for Alexa to quiz multiplication facts to my 5th grader. I want Echo to ask, “What is 3 times 7?” and wait for a response. The new Math Puzzles skill is similar to this, so hopefully multiplication fact-quizzing is coming soon. We are just about out of that phase at our house, but we would still embrace that functionality. I’d also like Echo to manage multiple calendars in our household. It’s great that she’s hooked up to my Google calendar, but there are three other members of my home, and they all have Google calendars too. What about them? Is Echo an individual device or a family device? I need to be able to specify which Google calendar I want to check and to have a way in the Echo app to set up every calendar in our household.

For those who have trouble with the small keypad on a smartphone or TV remote, voice automation through Echo could be a real asset. For those who are really focused or for those who have trouble focusing, prompts and reminders from Echo could be very helpful. She truly could be a life assistant, as well as a home automator.

What’s your experience with Echo? What would make or break your decision to add an Echo to your home? Leave me a comment with your thoughts.

Two Months With an Apple Watch

Glimpses of the Apple Watch life. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Glimpses of the Apple Watch life. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

I’ve had my Apple Watch for almost two months now and I’ve got to say that, overall, it’s been a really positive experience. Interested in getting one? Itching to read a post about an Apple product just so you can write a long-winded response about how Apple fans are idiots because Android had better products months before Apple’s new iThing for a fraction of the price?

Then this is the post for you!

Why I Wanted It
1 – Notifications. The Apple Watch doesn’t work without an iPhone, but they can communicate via Bluetooth (range of about 32 feet) or via a wireless network. At home, instead of having my phone on me at all times to keep up with the world, the idea is that I could leave my phone in a central location and have the Watch warn me of only the important stuff. I felt that could allow me to be more reachable in case of emergencies (work, health, or “I’m at the store, do you want me to get wine?” texts from my husband) while still spending overall less time on my gadgets in front of my kids.

Yes, I’m aware of how ironic it is—getting more gadgets to spend less time on gadgets.

2 – Health tracking. I had a Fitbit Zip (basically just a pedometer) that I was very happy with, in terms of counting steps and letting me compete with my friends as motivation. I found the idea of the Fitbit Charge very attractive (step counting, sleep tracking, heart rate monitoring) but I couldn’t get behind the limited style options. The Apple Watch is, well, shinier.

3 – Map directions. I had heard that the Watch could give you directions: It would tap one way to tell you to turn left, a different way to tell you to turn right. This seemed like a really cool idea to me.

4 – Yes, because it’s the latest iThing. I’m a sucker.

Why I Didn’t Not Get It
I hesitated a while before getting a Watch. My reasons for getting a Watch were good, but not oh-my-gosh-I-so-totally-need-this good. Meanwhile, I was really scared of getting stuck with a product I didn’t like. In the end, I realized two things:

1 – I don’t need it to be perfect. Reading the Apple Watch review from The Oatmeal helped me understand that a smartwatch won’t turn our lives around the way the smartphone did. The Apple Watch is, ultimately, more of an iPhone accessory than a new gadget of its own right. Somehow making it sound less useful removed some of the pressure in my needing it to be perfect. Weird, huh?

2 – I’m not committed to it. Unlike the iPhone, I have no contract forcing me to use this thing if I don’t like it. When I buy an iPhone under contract, I know I will need to use that phone whether I end up liking it or not. I need a phone and not using it isn’t really an option. But the Watch? I don’t need a Watch. Or a watch, for that matter. I can wear it all the time, some of the time, none of the time, sell it off to the highest bidder on Craigslist, etc… who cares!

So, with my fear of commitment appeased, I clicked the purchase button on the Apple Store online. It told me delivery would take 2-3 weeks, but to my surprise Apple delivered the package two days later with overnight delivery. I had my Watch three days from the date of purchase.

Life With My Apple Watch

Let’s see how it lived up to the reasons why I wanted it.

Your typical email notification on the Apple Watch. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Your typical email notification on the Apple Watch. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

1 – Notifications really did help me disconnect. I love my phone and it helps me stay sane. It has helped me stay connected to friends and family during the mind-numbing hours of rocking a baby to sleep, breastfeeding, or just when the kids are busy playing on their own and I can finally catch a five second break for myself.

On the other hand, I know I check my phone too often. I know that when I check my work emails, which I need to do, I will almost always mindlessly gravitate toward social networks apps shortly thereafter.

With the Watch, I receive notifications for emails, text messages, and phone calls. That’s it. You could set it up to do much more, or much less, but those are the only notifications I wanted. The Watch will vibrate when I get a notification and if I raise my hand to glance at the screen right away, the notification will display on the screen without touching a single button. If it’s an urgent email, I go find my phone or get on a computer to read the whole email body and respond. In the case of a text message, it prompts me with options to reply or dismiss the notification. If I click reply, I can dictate my response to Siri or use one of the default responses.

This process has helped me streamline everything I get during the day, and I love it. Love it.

Apple Watch tracking the number I've stood up at least once. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Apple Watch tracking the number I’ve stood up at least once. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

2 – Health tracking is “meh.” I have to admit, this one has been disappointing to me.

Yes, it’s tracking my steps just like the Fitbit Zip. Unfortunately, there’s really no social aspect to the Health app. I also don’t like the Health user interface; it looks pretty but it’s hard to filter the data if you’re looking for specific information. How many steps did I do yesterday? *Squints at the graph, between 6,000 and 8,000, maybe?* And seriously, what’s with the circles, Apple?

Yes, it tracks my heart rate, but as it turns out, I really have no use for this information. It was fun for about a minute (hey look, my heart rate is 68 right now!), but it quickly lost its novelty factor. Maybe this information is important to you if you’re training or have a heart condition, but it’s not for me.

In addition to the Health app on your iPhone, which gathers data from both your phone and your watch, there’s also the watch’s activity tracker native app that will show you three things: Move, Exercise, and Stand. Move tracks the number of calories I’ve spent moving, Exercise the number of minutes spent exercising (although I still don’t understand how it determines what counts as exercise), and Stand the number of hours during which you’ve stood. Don’t get that last one wrong, it’s not the cumulative number of minutes you’ve spent displayed in hour units. It’s the number of hours during which you’ve stood at all. That means you can sit from sunrise to sunset, but as long as you’ve stood up for a moment every hour, it’ll say you’ve stood up 12 hours. It’s kind of ridiculous. Health has pretty low expectations.

Overall, for my needs, the step counting works well, but all the other “health” tools have been mostly useless.

Apple Watch giving me directions. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Apple Watch giving me directions. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

3 – Directions surprised me with some awesome features. I’ve used the Watch to give me directions while driving a number of times now, and I’ve got some mixed feelings about it. The Watch will vibrate to tell me to turn left or right. Tap-tap-space-tap-tap-space-tap-tap for left and twelve consecutive taps for right, also known as “Why am I feeling a second heartbeat?” for left and “Why won’t this thing stop vibrating?” for right. Because it only vibrates when it’s time to turn without warning, and because the taps can be hard to distinguish while driving on a bumpy road, traveling by vibration is not as exciting and practical as I thought it would be. Unless you’re hearing-impaired, you’re better off using the Siri’s voice commands from your iPhone instead.

That being said, there is one unexpected feature I absolutely love: Your watch will display information about your next turn and how far ahead it is. This means if I miss what Siri said, I don’t have to wait for her to repeat it again later. I can just glance at my watch. Plus, if the instructions are to drive three miles on Sepulveda and I want to know how far along I’ve gotten so far, I can glance at my watch and it will show me. This is immensely practical when you’re in slow traffic and lose perspective of how far you’ve gotten.

I took a couple of day trips to L.A. with the Watch and I loved having that feature while I drove. I enjoyed it much better than trying to see the maps on my phone or the navigation system.

Yes, I do customize the face of the Watch every day to match my outfit. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Yes, I do customize the face of the Watch every day to match my outfit. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

4 – It’s a shiny new gadget and people are very curious about it. I’ve only bumped into a very small number people who own a Watch, but I’ve received many, many questions. What does it do? (Hum…) How much did it cost? (It costs less than most people think it does.) Does the band come in black? (I don’t know, check the Apple Store.) How’s the battery life? (I wear it all day—from 5 am to 11 pm—and I’ve rarely gotten below 50% battery life. I charge it every night while I sleep.) Is the band comfortable? (It won’t make your skin sweat as much as the plastic bands from the 80s, but it’s not as comfortable as wearing nothing.) Do you like it? (It’s been worth it so far.)

I’ve had so many people asking me questions about my Apple Watch that now I’m answering every question assuming they’re asking about the Watch. It’s been the source of a few embarrassing moments. I’ve had people at work ask me vague questions like, “How do you get notifications?” and then I start blabbering about my Watch just to realize they were asking with respect to something else entirely, like my code or Outlook. Oops.

So in the end, people have said the Watch is just a notification center like it’s a bad thing. As far as I’m concerned, yes, that’s mostly how I use it, but I love it for that. Some features, like health tracking, have left me ambivalent at best. Meanwhile, I find new and unexpected features every once in a while that make me glad I got the Watch. I’ll be interested to see where Apple goes from here.

Will You Upgrade to Windows 10 Tomorrow?

The new Start menu. Image: Microsoft
The new Start menu. Image: Microsoft.

A while back, Microsoft announced that Windows 10 would be available on July 29. Many have have reserved their copies, since it’s a free upgrade for people with Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. This is pretty cool. I remember actually having to purchase Windows 3.1 as an upgrade from Windows 3.0. It was about $80 at the time, which was a lot of money to this then-starving student.

Whether you currently have Windows 7, Windows 8.1, or even something earlier, it’s a good idea to consider upgrading. Windows 10 will have some interesting features.

You’ll love the familiar, fun, and productive Windows 10 features, such as:

1. The personal digital assistant goes beyond your phone: Cortana, the world’s most personal digital assistant, is now available on the PC (and all of your Windows devices). Now on the PC, you can ask her to find files for you, send an email on your behalf, turn on your music, pull up photos, find apps, and more.

2. Microsoft Edge: The new browser for Windows 10 lets you write on the web with built-in note-taking, sharing, and integration with Cortana. Plus, there’s a reading pane for no distractions.

3. Play more: Your games, friends, achievements, and more will follow you across Xbox One and Windows 10 devices. Xbox Live is built into Windows 10, giving you access to the greatest gaming community in the world no matter where you are. Windows 10 extends the Xbox experience with game streaming. Play your Xbox One games on a desktop, laptop, or tablet in your home on your local WiFi.

4. The Start menu is back! Everything you came to know and love about the Start menu is back and integrated with the live tile-touch experience.

Annotate your web pages and share them? Yes, please. Image: Microsoft
Annotate your web pages and share them? Yes, please. Image: Microsoft.

I’m excited to spend more time with Cortana. We use Siri quite a bit on our iPhones, and Cortana could simplify looking up information on our desktop machines. And I’m definitely willing to give Microsoft Edge a chance. Taking notes on the web… can’t wait to see how this works, especially for non-touchscreen devices (like my desktop).

Additionally, everything runs in a window. No more being lost when you’re running a Windows app. And you can snap four windows in place, in quadrants. And you can have multiple desktops for different purposes, and switch between them. I can’t wait to see how that one fits into my life.

Switch among desktops. I'm going to have fun with this one. Image: Microsoft
Switch among desktops. I’m going to have fun with this one. Image: Microsoft.

I’ve also read that there’s a possibility that Windows updates will be automatic and mandatory. This doesn’t bother me, since I always do the updates, but I know of some people who prefer to curate their updates themselves. So, do your research.

I haven’t yet gotten my hands on Windows 10 to try it out, but I’m genuinely excited to do so. Your operating system affects how you can interact with your computer in very important ways. A major change like Windows 10 has the possibility of introducing some new frustrations, but it looks like Microsoft has done their best to address complaints about Windows 7 and 8, and to add plenty of new and useful functionality. I’m looking forward to it.

For those who aren’t getting a free Windows 10 upgrade, it can be purchased online. Prices vary.

Note: As part of the Microsoft Bloggers program, I have been provided hardware and software for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.

JBL’s Splashproof Charge 2+ Bluetooth Speaker Perfect for Summer Fun

Image: Patricia Vollmer.
Image: Patricia Vollmer.

Just in time for summer, our family received a JBL Charge 2+ bluetooth speaker to check out. Having had experiences with the JBL Flip and Charge speakers already, we were no strangers to this compact sound system’s great sound quality and versatility.

However, this time around we had a couple extra features to check out. Let’s explore a little more, shall we?

What Comes in the Box

  • Charge 2+ speaker
  • 40″ USB charging cable
  • A/C Adapter for USB cable
  • Quick Start Guide
  • Safety instructions
Connecting the Charge 2+ wirelessly is easier than ever! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Connecting the Charge 2+ wirelessly is easier than ever! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

General Usage

Setup for these speakers has been becoming more straightforward over the years, and connecting my iPhone 5S to the Charge 2+ was easier than ever. Simply hit the Bluetooth logo button on the top of the speaker and consult your device’s Bluetooth settings to look for “JBL Charge 2+” to connect.

If Bluetooth isn’t an option for your device, you can use an auxiliary cable to connect any phone, iPod-type player, or computer to the speaker and still enjoy the Charge 2+’s sound.

With the connection in place, you can now explore the Charge 2+’s sound capability. Turn up the volume for some awesome bass, and check out the JBL Bass Radiators on the ends: they pulse with the bass beat. Volume can be controlled either via your device or on the speaker itself.

In addition to using the Charge 2+ for tunes, it can also function as a speaker for your cell phone. Use the telephone icon button on the top to answer phone calls or transfer your phone’s speaker to the Charge 2+.

Finally, as the speaker’s name implies, the Charge 2+ can also charge your devices. Use your device’s USB charging cable and plug it into the USB female port in the back of the unit. The Charge 2+ has a 6000mAH lithium-ion battery can support up to 12 hours of playback (at a lower volume), so there is plenty of juice to spare for charging. I plugged in my iPhone 5S at 59% and it had charged up to 95% in one hour (I had turned off all apps on the phone and wasn’t playing music on the Charge 2+…although one can simultaneously play music and charge devices).

New Feature: Social Mode

JBL’s new “Social Mode” feature allows up to three devices to be connected to a single Charge 2+ speaker. There’s a button on top that needs to be pressed before connecting the multiple devices; otherwise the speaker will kick any additional devices off.

Multiply your playlists: The Social Mode button allows for up to three Bluetooth-enabled devices to connect to the JBL Charge 2+. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Multiply your playlists: The Social Mode button allows for up to three Bluetooth-enabled devices to connect to the JBL Charge 2+. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Hold down the button until it illuminates, then invite your friends to join you in playing from multiple playlists!

I tried this feature out by connecting my iPhone 5S, my MacBook Pro laptop, and my son’s Motorola Droid Turbo. We took turns taking over each others’ playlists, with my son choosing Green Day’s “Holiday” versus my Eminem and Katy Perry. At first we were just hitting “play” on our respective devices over and over again, which was some silly fun.

When we let one of the songs play for a minute or so, it was taken over abruptly by other things. My iPhone took over the Charge 2+ when I received a text message, which made a sound. When the TweetDeck app on my MacBook received a new Tweet, it beeped and hence took over the speaker. Users will need to keep this in mind for the Social Mode to work smoothly.

Another thing to know about the Social Mode: the Charge 2+ will play based on each device’s own volume settings. So when users first set up their respective playlists, they should agree on a volume. Ideally, each device should have maximum volume; use the Charge 2+ volume for the master control.

Battle of the Playlists! While Social Mode can be cool for multiple smartphones, when my laptop was added to the mix, however, every time my Tweetdeck tweeted it would take over the speaker. Oops. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Battle of the Playlists! While Social Mode can be cool for multiple smartphones, when my laptop was added to the mix, every time my Tweetdeck tweeted it would take over the speaker. Oops. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

“Splashproof”, Not “Waterproof”

The Charge 2+ features “splashproof” operation. What this means is it can operate near water, but not in water. For example, if someone towels off poolside and drips on the speaker, it’s fine. If you want to have the speaker at the beach, that also shouldn’t be a problem. I was even willing to take it into the shower, so long as the shower stream wasn’t directly spraying onto the Charge 2+.

However, do not try to submerge the speaker altogether. This is not designed for underwater listening.

"Splashproof" operation means the JBL Charge 2+ can operate near water, but not in the water. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
“Splashproof” operation means the JBL Charge 2+ can operate near water, but not in the water. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

We took our Charge 2+ near our hot tub on a chilly evening earlier this spring. Since my husband has a Lifeproof case on his iPhone 4S, he was able to take his phone into the hot tub and control the speaker from within. Being able to listen to tunes and control things from within the hot tub was a lot of fun.

We had to be extra careful not to let the speaker fall into the hot tub altogether.

Get enough friends together (with splashproof cases, of course) and you can enable the Social Mode and have a fun music party in the pool, the beach, or the hot tub. Summertime just got a lot more fun!

In addition to the standard black and white, the Charge 2+ comes in a variety of additional fun colors, such as red, orange, green, blue, and pink. With these additional new features, the Charge 2+’s price is no more than the Charge 2 that’s on the market currently, with an MSRP of $149.99. The JBL Charge 2+ is sold at major electronics retailers and online through the JBL-Harman website (where, as of this writing, it’s on sale for $119.99) or Amazon.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Testing Out the Coolpad Arise and Freebie Phone Service

A peek at the front and the back of the Coolpad Arise. Photo: Scratch Wireless.

My son is eight and we just started letting him take his bike down our semi-busy street. Every single time he leaves the house, my chest muscles constrict ever so slightly. Aside from worrying about who and what may be running him over, I often wonder where he is.

Since he has several school friends who live on our street, he could be at one of maybe eight different houses. If an emergency arises or dinner hits the table, we don’t want to have to call half of his class to find him.

We gave him a digital watch, which has an alarm. This seems to be getting him back in time for dinner. We thought about a phone, in case of emergencies, but seeing that he’s only eight, we’d like to wait a few years before adding another monthly bill. Another interesting option is Scratch Wireless, a phone service without the actual service plan. Instead, this freebie option can deliver calling and text messaging over WiFi. Even better, it gives him a lot of the phone perks, without the pricey plans and equipment.

The latest Scratch device is the Coolpad Arise, which runs a mere $99. It’s certainly not cheap, but it’s cheaper than a lot of phones and other portables currently on the market—ones that do the exact same things as this one.

The Coolpad Arise is an Android device, which means that not only will it offer all of the power of the 4.4.2 KitKat OS, but it can also access all of the goodies at the Google Play Store. So what you spend on apps (although I didn’t spend anything during our time with this phone), you’ll make back on the lack of a monthly phone bill.

Out of the box, the Coolpad Arise looks like most fancy-schmancy smartphones, which almost every single kid (and adult) will appreciate. Even though I had the device charging in an out-of-the-way location, my son sniffed it out like it was coated in fresh baked cookies or something. He saw that shiny exterior, wanted to know exactly what it was, and more importantly, when he could start smudging up the screen.

Photo: Scratch Wireless.

Speaking of the charging, I am going to let you in on a little secret that may save you $99—or at least a few fingernails. This thing has a battery that you need to install. It’s not mentioned anywhere in the documentation (that I could find), but it’s there in the bottom of the box. To install the battery, you’ll need to pry off the back of the phone’s outer shell. There’s a little notch in the lower right-hand corner of the phone to help you get it open. It’s so teeny, it looks like a design element. You may not even notice it, unless you hold it up to the light. It’s also not easy to wedge open. Seriously, I thought I was going to need a nutcracker and a screwdriver; it was that tight. However, I’m kind of glad it’s that way, since it means that the thing won’t be opening up and the battery won’t be flying out on the road while my son is peddling away.

After letting it charge overnight, I inspected the device, which is really lightweight. (I weighed it in at 5.5 ounces.) It’s also a nice looking phone. There’s a 4-inch touchscreen and the top has an audio jack, an earpiece jack, and a USB/power port. The left side has a volume key, with the power key on the right. The bottom of the screen has touch keys for the main menu, home, and to go back. The back of the phone is where the speaker lives, as well as the 2-megapixel camera. It also features Bluetooth, in case you want to stream music to a wireless speaker.

For my first use, the Coolpad Arise did take a minute or two to boot up. Then, it updated, restarted, and instantly found my home’s WiFi connection. It will ask for a Google account, which you’re going to need for all of the Android/Google Play goodness anyway. To activate the phone, you’ll need to provide a name and email address. The entire setup took just a few minutes and the phone delivered a Massachusetts-based phone number, which is pretty awesome, since I live in Massachusetts. (Although that seems to be standard, based on GeekMom Jenny’s previous Scratch Wireless review.) The service also gives you the option to transfer a phone number from another provider, which may come in handy for those of you looking to ditch a monthly bill.

The phone comes preloaded with the Scratch App. This is what allows you to connect to random networks and purchase “passes.” Passes allow you to use the phone in areas where WiFi is not free or available. According to Scratch Wireless, you can always text for free, even when no WiFi is available. Does this device deliver on such magical promises? I was determined to find out!

I made my maiden call while connected to my home WiFi, to my sister in Delaware. She seemed impressed with the overall sound quality. However, I was pacing (as I often do during my phone calls), and she said a few times that I got a little fuzzy. I noticed this was usually when I walked towards my home office, so there may have been some electronic interference. She also noted that the call sounded worse when I was on speakerphone. However, I thought the quality of her voice was much better when on the speaker. Up to my ear, her voice was a bit tinny. The quality of the signal was pretty great, with no drops or misunderstood words. I do think that a few of my sentences to her were on a delay, but it didn’t make the call any more annoying than most cell calls. My son certainly didn’t complain about the quality of calls with his friends. Then again, I think it could have sounded like he was yelling through a tin can and he would have been very happy.

Outside of the house, I had a hard time tapping into free WiFi. I live in a quiet area near the beach, so it’s not like there’s a Starbucks or McDonald’s every few feet. Most people nowadays keep their WiFi networks password-protected (and so should you!), and I saw plenty of those. If you live in an area where there are a lot of businesses offering free WiFi, you will be super happy with using this phone anywhere and everywhere.

Of course, this isn’t a knock on the service. I’m just saying that your interest in the Coolpad Arise as a working phone may have a lot to do with how much WiFi is available in your immediate area. Or if you plan to only use the phone at home, awesome. Sold. If you need it for a constantly moving 8-year-old in a suburban area, your mileage may vary.

Here’s a bonus though: Wherever you are, there’s free texting. From the grocery store, I sent and received messages with my husband, without being connected to any WiFi. Out on the beach, I didn’t have as much luck and got a lot of “not sent” messages. That said, the beach by my house is like a cell phone dead zone, so this is not totally surprising at all. According to the people at Scratch Wireless, the texting is free 24/7 through Sprint, even when you’re not on WiFi. MMS texting, which includes group and picture texting, is not free. So if you’re in an area that doesn’t get Sprint (or any service, for that matter), you’ll be out of luck.

For times when you need that WiFi for calling or MMS texting and don’t have access to it, Scratch Wireless offers the option to purchase data passes. These come in variety of flavors for voice and data. Sadly, there are no options to purchase both; they are separate. For $1.99, you can get 24 hours of unlimited calls or 24 hours/50MBs of data. For $6.99, you can get 30 days/100 minutes of calling or 30 days/500MBs of data. And finally, the $14.99 plan will give you a month’s worth of calling or 30 days/1GB of data. Data passes can be bought right on the phone with a credit card, but you can absolutely get by without having to make any purchases whatsoever.

Photo taken with the Coolpad Arise. Photo: Rachel Cericola.

As mentioned, the Coolpad Arise also has full access to the Google Play Store. My son had no problem finding all sorts of games to play and seemed very happy with the performance. He did end up deleting Netflix because he said it was taking a while to load. I reloaded it, and sure enough, it took so long to sign in, I just gave up. However, I had no problem streaming YouTube, as well as playing other apps.

Also worth mentioning is that this phone has Google Voice, which sort of makes it a little cooler than my iPhone 4. This delivers easy, immediate answers to just about every question imaginable, whether you want to know about the weather, the 1978 Academy Awards, the pizza places in your immediate area, or the nationality of golfer Rory McIlroy.

My one gripe: Currently, there’s no such thing as a Coolpad Arise case. While the phone is pretty inexpensive at $99, it’s not like I want to be replacing the screen or have cracks on the outside. During our time with the phone, we didn’t have any mishaps. However, considering how many times I’ve dropped my iPhone while I’ve had it, I’d say a case is a must. Scratch Wireless says that they are working with a manufacturer to get a case out soon. Hopefully, that will come out before the company’s next phone release!

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Microsoft Band Seamlessly Integrates Into Your Life

Image: Microsoft
Image: Microsoft.

Harkening back to the running shoe craze of the 1980s, wearable fitness tech is everywhere. Each variation does things a little differently from the rest, though wrist placement seems to be the preferred option.

Now securely in this new-ish realm, Microsoft offers the Band for fitness and a gazillion other things. Powered by Microsoft Health, the Microsoft Band pairs with your phone via Bluetooth. Combined with the Microsoft Health app on your phone and website-based dashboard, the Band helps you keep tabs on your fitness, nutrition, and weight goals by counting your steps, keeping track of your heart rate, measuring activity and sleep, and more. It can also map your walks, runs, and bike rides with the built-in GPS. No need to take your phone with you. There is also a UV monitor, which will help you decide if sunscreen is needed.

The phone app and website dashboard. Image: Microsoft
The phone app and website dashboard. Image: Microsoft.

You can access a lot more on the Microsoft Health website and phone app. The phone gives you a bigger screen to keep an eye on your stats, and also allows you to choose personal workouts with videos that guide you through them, right on your phone. The website has a fantastic interface for obsessing over keeping track of your fitness goals as well, allowing you to analyze all of your fitness stats.

If you want more from your wrist tech than just fitness, the Band delivers that as well. It can also be your personal assistant. Receive alerts, social media messages, text messages, call notifications, emails, and other notifications on the Band. Keep track of your calendar, sleep, timers and alarms, and more. Navigate menus easily with its touchscreen, and when linked with a Windows phone, you can access Cortana and a handy but tiny keyboard on your Band. This is a lot more discreet than pulling out your phone during a meeting.

In case you wanted to know what's inside. Image: Microsoft
In case you wanted to know what’s inside. Image: Microsoft.

What’s the Band like?
Compared to my FitBit Flex, the Band is bulkier and beefier. The parts of the Band that go along the sides of your wrist are inflexible, which can affect fit. Also, it’s not meant to be submerged in water. So you can likely wear it on a rainy day or have it on your wrist while you wash your hands, but be sure to take it off to shower and swim.

I found the magnetic charger cable to be pretty nifty. Just attach it to the Band and plug it in. No worries about bending the end of a cable. It’s also easy to slightly adjust the size of the Band, either to fit your wrist or to adjust for comfort throughout the day. The Band also comes in three sizes, so you’ll find a model to fit you. Measure yourself on the sizing chart to make sure you get the right size.

The Band gives you all of your message alerts. Image: Microsoft
The Band gives you all of your message alerts. Image: Microsoft.

Visit the Microsoft Band site for more in-depth specifications, detailed features and instructions, and a closer look at the included sensors.

Some observations:

  • The screen can scratch easily, but third-party screen protectors are available, if that’s a concern for you.
  • There seems to be a character limit on what the Band will display for a text or message.
  • Make sure the Band fits well to get the correct heart rate.
  • Push updates for things like taking your turn on Carcassonne can tip you off to stay connected.
  • The Band needs to be charged about every other day, compared with about every week or so for the FitBit Flex.

Some helpful tips:

  • You can wear it on the inside or outside of your wrist.
  • You can lock it so that it shows the time all the time, like a regular watch.
  • You can customize it with background color and a pattern of choice, along with what apps it displays.
  • Use the tiny screen keyboard to reply to texts and more.
  • The Band can show your texts one word at a time, pausing for punctuation, making it easy-ish to read a long text.

The Microsoft Band is also hooked up to your Microsoft account, so I was curious about what steps Microsoft takes to ensure privacy. Here are the relevant FAQs on the matter.

Q: Does Microsoft give the personal data I provide to Microsoft Health to third parties? Does Microsoft Health keep personal data private?

A: Microsoft believes it is important to help you maintain your privacy. We will not share your personal data with third parties without your permission.

Q: Do you have plans to monetize my data? What steps have you taken to ensure third party partners will not abuse data collected through Microsoft Health, or sell it to data brokers, information resellers or advertisers?

A: We have no plans to monetize or do anything with the data that the user does not initiate on their own. If you connect a third party app, such as MyFitnessPal or RunKeeper to Microsoft Health Service, the use of your activity information is subject to the privacy practices and terms of use for the third party service. We strongly encourage you to review the privacy statement and terms of use for any third part service before you connect.

Q: What does Microsoft Health do with the data it collects?

A: Microsoft Health is a cloud-based destination to store, share and convert information into insights you can use to achieve your fitness goals.

Q: Where do you store my Microsoft Health data?

A: The information collected from the Microsoft Band sensors and the information you provide for your profile is stored in the Microsoft Health Service and not in the Microsoft Health app on your phone. We store personal information on computer systems that have limited access and are in controlled facilities.

Q: How long do you keep my Microsoft Health data?

A: Generally, based on standard data retention policies, Microsoft keeps your personal data as long as you continue to use the product or service. If you close your Microsoft Health account, Microsoft will stop collecting your Microsoft Health data. To close your account, please contact customer support.

Q: Who owns my Microsoft Health data?

A: Microsoft Health is designed to create a security enhanced, centralized location for the industry to store and democratize data for the benefit of everyone. Customers have the ultimate power in deciding what data they choose to share, and with whom. We do not share anything without your permission.

If you’re into wearable tech and like to always be connected to the interwebs and/or you’re very active and love to track your stats, the Microsoft Band is a fun and useful thing to wear. And at $199.99, it’s priced competitively with other tech on the market.

Note: As part of the Microsoft Bloggers program, I have been provided hardware for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.

Panasonic 3E Convertible 2-in-1 Is Built for Education

Image: Panasonic
Image: Panasonic

For those who prefer a high-tech classroom, Panasonic, along with Intel and Microsoft, has created a purpose-built computer for the K-12 education market. It won’t keep kids stuck in the classroom, however. It’s extremely portable, even having a carrying handle, and is intended to be brought out into the field to look at things in nature and study the world.

“Anywhere, anytime learning for the student-centered classroom.”

Image: Panasonic
Image: Panasonic

The Panasonic 3E Convertible 2-in-1 is a useful tool for students. (The 3E stands for “Engage, Empower, Enable,” which mirrors my educational philosophy completely.) It is a fully functional Windows 8.1 machine. The keyboard is small enough for students’ hands, but large enough to accommodate them as they grow. The detachable 10″ tablet works well on its own, and can also be turned around and reattached to the keyboard, allowing for tablet use while keeping all the pieces together. The tethered stylus is easy to use, nestles securely, and charges in just 20 seconds while in its nook. Use it to tap, draw, take notes, etc. The computer comes with educational accessories, such as a temperature probe and a magnifying glass, the latter of which snaps into the rear-facing 5MP camera to allow students to see things up close.

This thing is certainly built for education. Between the accessories and the machine capabilities (such as the gyroscope, magnetometer/accelerometer sensor, cameras, and microphone) and the installed software, kids are encouraged to explore. On their own or under a teacher’s guidance, students can use these devices for almost any school subject. Lessons in science, art, multimedia, research, and more are easy to expand using the 3E.

From the press release:

Designed from the ground up for the K-12 market, every aspect of the 3E was conceived to encourage inquiry-based learning, to boost engagement and nurture analytical skills that will help students succeed in STEM subjects. The device is also able to alleviate teacher anxiety by empowering them to deliver personalized learning for students while maintaining whole group instruction.

This isn’t just a case of putting technology on top of learning. These machines are designed with learning completely integrated, and they encourage students to use their imaginations, using computers as a tool for learning. The machines will expand students’ learning environments and opportunities, not restrict them.

Image: Panasonic
Image: Panasonic

The tablet’s touch screen is especially useful for kids, who need to explore and dive into their content. Whole classrooms can use these devices, and they are also able to integrate into a larger classroom system.

The machines are spill- and dust-resistant, and are extremely durable. They can withstand a 70 cm drop. You know your kids will drop this thing, and bang it around. Panasonic made sure it would withstand that kind of use.

The devices have a variety of I/O ports on the side, protected by a door, and the tablet can keep a charge for eight hours. The keyboard can extend that time three additional hours.

The software included on the machine is useful for many educational purposes:

  • ArtRage Studio – Plenty of options for art creation.
  • Foxit Reader – A multi-format ebook reader in which students can also make and name their own bookshelves within the program.
  • Kno Textbooks – This comes with a few samples, but is designed to be used with textbooks that you purchase, or have access to through school.
  • Lab Camera – With this program, students can use the magnifying glass, do time lapses, do kinematics, use the motion cam, or treat it as a microscope, universal logger, pathfinder, or graph challenge. With the magnifying glass, students can put something directly up to the glass. They can then save or print photos, plain or with measurements on them.
  • Media Camera – This program allows students to make media, either in Presenter or Recorder format.
  • SPARKvue – Software to run something akin to Power Point school lessons, from what I can piece together. The computer also comes with a “Folder for Experiments” which includes several example experiments, including ones that demonstrate how to use the accessories. Students interact with the pages to complete assignments.
Image: Panasonic
Image: Panasonic

What did I think of the Panasonic 3E?

I liked it very much. My 13-year-old daughter took to it right away, making herself at home and experimenting with all of the functionality. We tried things mundane and unusual, and determined that it’s a pretty solid product. It’s the kind of thing that I would choose for my kids to use in our homeschooling: fully functional computers that aren’t at all restricted by location or purpose.

Some observations of note:

  • If you don’t get the tablet portion clicked into the keyboard portion well enough, the tablet can fall out. Make sure it clicks in well.
  • Since you have to open the I/O port cover to plug in headphones as well as anything other than the AC adapter, we worry that the hinge will wear out quickly.
  • Some of the keys are a bit small, but that’s a good fit for students.
  • The keys are a bit slippery.
  • There are two vertical line/slash keys. This extra key makes the left shift key a bit small for my taste.
  • The tether for the stylus seems to get in the way a lot, whether the computer is opened or closed.
  • The slot in the tablet that holds the stylus is pretty secure, so confident users could consider removing the tether.
  • It’s a good idea to have a pouch for the magnifying glass and the temperature probe accessories to protect them and keep them from getting lost. Use a big enough one, and the AC adapter will fit as well.

In summary, the Panasonic 3E 2-in-1 convertible computer is a well-matched choice for students, at least through middle school. Whether your school system invests in the whole Panasonic Education shebang, or just several units for students, these are solid machines that will take what kids throw at them. Since they are Windows machines, they are completely compatible with systems that are already in place.

For a full set of specs, visit the spec sheet on Panasonic’s website. For more information on getting the Panasonic 3E, visit Panasonic’s website or email them at

Note: GeekMom received a unit for review purposes.

REVIEW: PureGear Powerbank Offers Lots of Power in a Slim, Portable Package

PureGear Powerbank , Image: PureGear
PureGear Powerbank, Image: PureGear

The summer months are almost here and that means family road trips and adventures are getting close. There will be plenty of kids and parents looking to keep their phones and tablets charged, and the PureGear Powerbank is up to the task.

This is a 10,000 mAh battery that can charge either two handsets at the same time or a single tablet. It can charge one handset three times over so it will easily take you through a day’s adventures, even when you’re using your phone’s camera to take tons of pictures.

It arrives pre-charged so it’s ready to go and even includes a micro USB cable. There are two USB charging ports (1A and 2A) so it’s compatible with a wide range of devices and it has a blue LED readout to help you see when the battery is running low. It even starts blinking when it’s almost empty so you’re not caught by surprise.

The challenge with battery packs is making them easy to carry and the PureGear Powerbank manages this by being both lightweight and small. It measures 3″ x 6″ x 1″ so it’s something you can fit in a purse or your pocket.

It’s also just the right size so that you can easily hold and use your phone with the Powerbank tucked behind it, still charging your device. You won’t have to be constantly unplugging it every time you want to snap a picture.

The PureGear Powerbank is now available for $59.99 and is a great accessory for summer travel, business travelers, and even kids getting ready for the big trek to college this fall.

I received this product for review purposes.

Love ‘Minecraft’ (or Know Someone Who Does)? Let Gameband Take You There

Courtesy of Gameband.

Gameband + Minecraft is something special for fans of Minecraft. It’s a wearable (yeah, I know we’re hearing a LOT about those these days), but it’s a wearable with a big difference. Gameband is a portable game of Minecraft you take with you on your wrist. It’s YOUR personal, portable game of Minecraft, because when you plug it into a computer (any computer) and play, you save your own personal creations back on the device.

[This post was sponsored by Gameband]

The basic idea is that users can play Minecraft from the Gameband on most any computer (Windows, Mac, and even Linux), as the game is pre-installed on Gameband (but the user needs to have purchased the game license separately). On top of that, Gameband comes with a bunch of pre-loaded contents, including awesome maps created by community-favorites SethBling, Dragnoz, and Hypixel. What’s really special is that whatever you do in a given session using the Gameband is automatically backed up to the Gameband, and if you have internet connectivity, it’ll be backed up to the cloud as well (via Gameband’s servers). You’ll never lose your world again, and you can take it anywhere you want to go!

Computer 14-02 v1e
Courtesy of Gameband.


You may have also noticed it’s a watch, and it has the software built in so that the user can tweak the LED-array display in any way they please. Because hackability is key!

The Gameband comes pre-loaded with the Pixel Furnace app that lets you design what the Gameband displays. You can develop any animations you want to run on your Gameband, save them, and even share them on the Pixel Furnace community, where you can find animations from other Gameband owners as well.

As for the hardware: Gameband + Minecraft has a high-end watch strap made from durable thermoplastic polyurethane, a stainless-steel clasp (with Redstone design elements), USB 3.0 MLC drive technology (offering high-speed data transfer for gamers and a 10x life-cycle compared to normal UBS drives), and a 140 LED-array display. And it’s splash-proof to IPX-4—which means it can handle being worn if you get caught out in the rain (but we advise you take it off before playing with Super-Soakers).

Courtesy of Gameband.


The point is: It’s durable, and meant to be used and used! It’s the perfect wearable for the “kid” who loves Minecraft.

Price: $79.99. Available at or at Target, GameSpot, EBGames, and NewEgg. They also just launched at Microsoft stores (look at these images from the launch party in Boston last week), and will be in Best Buys all over by the end of March.

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[GeekMom Sponsored Content Notice: This post was sponsored by the creator of the product. It is GeekMom’s ethical and legal duty to notify our readers when we run sponsored content, but while we are either getting paid for a post (it’s one of the few ways we have to generate revenue to keep the site running) or have received review samples of the products we write about, we work very hard to only bring you sponsors and products that we ourselves would be interested in.]

How To Celebrate Arduino Day

Image credit:

Are you ready for Arduino Day this Saturday? If you’ve been thinking about getting the kids started with this popular hardware, the day dedicated to the purpose seems like as good a time as any! There are events happening around the world as well as online. Here’s how to find the best celebration for you:

Know of other ways and places to celebrate Arduino Day? Let us know in the comments.

Surface Pro 3—When Awesome Gets Even, Uh, Awesomer

Image: Microsoft
The whole setup. Image: Microsoft

I never used an earlier version of Microsoft’s Surface, though I have seen it in action once or twice. I’ve only used desktop machines, laptops, notebooks, netbooks, and tablets. Never a pseudo-hybrid.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I finally got my hands on Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3. Would I like it? How would I use it? What place in my life would it have? What uses would it be best for, over my other devices?

Just like when I got my iPad 2, lo, those many years ago now, I was excited to use a new device but wasn’t sure how it would fit with my habits. I knew the iPad 2 (now so far behind the current models that it runs glacially) was cool when I got it, but I wasn’t sure what to use it for. It quickly became a great way to consume media, and single-handedly helped me move away from watching television on an actual television.

I had a different but related experience with the Surface Pro 3. I already had a tablet. I already had a laptop. Would this be a case of a hybrid doing everything, but doing nothing well? Or would it seamlessly bridge the gap and transition between the two experiences? At first I wasn’t sure. It felt a bit foreign, because you can’t just pry the thing open and balance it on your lap. (At least not my lap—my legs aren’t long enough to prop up the screen and have the keyboard flat.) And even if I managed it, the keyboard was a little thin and flimsy to type vigorously, balanced on one’s legs. It bounces around a bit.

Placing the Surface Pro 3 on a table or other large, flat surface takes care of all of those issues, however. The keyboard feels more substantial with a table for support, and you can lean the screen/tablet portion at any angle you choose. Any severe angle seems to require a bit of oomph to get it there, though. The keyboard comes in several colors, which allows you to personalize your experience, and when closed, the keyboard also serves to protect the screen. I’m generally happy with the keyboard. The trackpad, clicking, and the keys all work well. There are also separate arrow keys, which is nice.

Image: Microsoft
A demonstration of my favorite stylus ever. Image: Microsoft

Using the Surface Pro 3 in the laptop orientation is only one of many ways to interact with this tool. If you pry off the keyboard portion, which is easy to do, the screen is now a tablet. Tap, scroll, and pinch to your heart’s content. It works just like other Windows 8 tablets out there.

When you’re ready for something new and incredibly useful, try out the Surface Pen. It’s not your usual stylus. It’s Bluetooth-enabled, so it can interact with the device in ways that your finger or a conventional capacitive stylus can’t. Rest your hand on the screen and write or draw with the stylus, and with the magic of science (or, Palm Block technology), only your pen marks show up. No marks from your hand. You can also use the stylus in some ways while using your finger swipes in others. Scroll with your finger, and draw with your pen. It also seems to be pretty pressure sensitive, which is great for when you’re drawing. The tip is quite pointy, so, unlike the snub-nosed styli out there, you can place this one on the screen with more precision.

The Surface Pen also includes two buttons on the body of the pen, which are for erasing and right-clicking. One tap of the button on the end (where an eraser would be) opens OneNote, and your’re ready to write a new note. (OneNote will also convert handwriting to text, which is handy here.) Double tap it and you’ve just captured a screenshot. The pen also works in any app that allows for this kind of “ink.” In short, it works just like I’ve always wanted a stylus to work. The first words about it that escaped my mouth were, “Amazing sauce!” Silly, I know. But hey.

The Surface Pro 3 Pen comes with a sticky attachment loop, and you can choose, yourself, where to position it. I put mine on the left side of the keyboard, since I didn’t want it in the way of my tableting when I had the keyboard unhooked.

The many angles of the Surface Pro 3. Image: Microsoft
The many angles of the Surface Pro 3. Image: Microsoft

The Surface Pro 3 has a bigger tablet portion than my iPad 2, but is smaller than my other laptops. So it’s great to take with me for a very portable laptop and stellar tablet experience. Other than doing activities such as playing Guild Wars 2, I can replicate just about anything on the Surface Pro 3 that I can do on my more powerful desktop machine.

I haven’t measured battery life, but, unlike my other Windows 8 tablets, the Surface Pro 3 holds a charge for more than 24 hours (considerably more, I believe). Not having to charge it each time I want to use it is an important feature for me.

To sum up, the Surface Pro 3 works really well as a tablet. It also is quite versatile as a laptop, minus the lap. If you tend to have a laptop as your only computer, and you’re a heavy computer user, the Surface Pro 3 likely won’t replace it. But it’s the perfect secondary device. The stylus is the best I’ve ever used. It just works, it’s very pointy, and because it’s Bluetooth, it resists the touch of your hand while you’re using the pen. Also, even more than any of my other Windows 8 devices, the Surface Pro 3 boots up and shuts down really fast.

The longer I use the Surface Pro 3, the more I like it. I don’t use it like I use a tablet. I don’t use it like I use a laptop. It’s definitely a hybrid of the two, erring on the side of being an excellent tablet that can handle desktop applications with ease. Easy, breezy, beautiful comes to mind. Versatile. Adaptable. Great for school, on the go, work, etc.

For complete specs, visit the Surface Pro 3 page on the Microsoft website. The device comes in a variety of performance and price levels. For more information on the pen (you’ll want more information on the pen, for a variety of reasons), I found this page pretty helpful.

How do you like to use your Surface?

Note: As part of the Microsoft Bloggers program, I have been provided hardware for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.

How to Survive Snow Shoveling Season

snow shoveling
Photo by Jackie Reeve.

It’s been a wet and snowy winter, and while my heart is plotting spring adventures, my brain reminds me that it is, in fact, only February. We have not seen the last of snow, and I’m starting to wonder if the whole “March goes in like a lion, out like a lamb” thing will be more applicable to April this year.


So, here are some tips for surviving the rest of the snowy season. And I don’t mean the snow angels and snowmen season of kids frolicking and having the time of their lives when school is closed. I mean the “I have to get to work and my driveway looks like an Ice Road Truckers route” kind of snowy season.

Artisanal marshmallows. You’re a grownup, but that doesn’t mean hot chocolate isn’t still the greatest thing about a snowstorm. If you want to tszuj up a cup of cocoa, try some fancy marshmallows. Whimsy & Spice make amazing fluffy squares in flavors like cardamom and maple. Keep a stash in your desk at work or in your cabinets at home for when you need some relief from cleaning off your car or shoveling the white stuff.

Get out the snow paint. Fill some squeeze bottles with water and food coloring, and get the kids to help you decorate your driveway and yard. This will in no way change the fact that the driveway still has to be cleared, but you’ll have a much more festive view when you do get around to it.

Invest in a UE Megaboom. Clearing snow deserves its own anthemic soundtrack. The UE Megaboom ($299.99) is a 360-degree portable speaker with a waterproof and stain-resistant skin. That means it can hold its own against splashes of snow and road salt while spreading sound throughout the neighborhood.

Logitech Megaboom
Screenshot by Jackie Reeve, from

The Megaboom is lightweight and delivers a surprising amount of bass for a Bluetooth speaker. It comes in a bunch of bright colors, and it does not come in white. This is an instant pick-me-up when the latest snowmageddon covers the world like the White Witch from Narnia has paid a visit (winter all the time and never Christmas… sounds like January and February to me!).

The Bluetooth range is 100 feet, so you can keep your phone in your pocket while you work. Park this speaker on your porch or in your garage, and play loud and epic music while you shovel. Like “Eye of the Tiger,” or Pat Benatar, or something. At the very least, get in the Super Mario Bros. theme, and don’t mind those looks from the neighbors. You have got this!

megaboom in a storm
Photo by Jackie Reeve.

Wax your snow shovel. Here’s a tip from This Old House: Put two thick coats of car wax on the business end of your snow shovel, and no more sticking snow when you’re clearing your front walk. Genius.

Build an igloo with the leftover snow. That snow has to go somewhere. Instead of piling it at the curb or on the front lawn, try this igloo tutorial from Your Modern Family. This is also an incentive to get the kids to grab a spare shovel and help.

Bake cookies and bring beer to the neighbor on your street with the biggest snowblower. In my experience, those who buy large, powerful pieces of outdoor equipment are dying to use them. All. Over. The. Neighborhood.

When all else fails and you simply cannot face that driveway one more time, ply this neighbor with sugar and booze… but not right before he (or she!) is set to go out and plow. Drop by the night before a storm with provisions to see them through it, and chances are you’ll have your driveway cleared for you by morning. This strategy works equally well in the summer for the neighbor who has a rider mower. You’ll thank me later.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Toshiba Encore Mini Tablet Is Perfect to Share, Take Along

Image: Toshiba
Image: Toshiba

When we don’t have much money to spend, we tend to just buy the one device we need. Something that is in the right price range that handles all the tasks we intend to throw at it. But what if we have the opportunity to have an extra, secondary device? What do we choose then? Likely we would choose something less expensive, less fancy, and something we’d feel comfortable handing to our kids.

I’ve found such a mini tablet. Not a headliner, but definitely a good, functional backup and secondary device which you’ll feel comfortable giving heavy use to.

Image: Toshiba
Image: Toshiba

The Toshiba Encore Mini tablet is an affordable and portable option for tablet use on the go. It has a nice heft, and it fits perfectly in my (average woman-sized) hand. This 7-inch tablet will fit in just about any purse or bag, and its dimensions are equally great for apps, watching videos, or doing light work. I like how all of the controls, other than power, are on the top, which makes it easier to avoid accidental activation. There are two cameras, and a speaker at the bottom. The back of the device is white, while the front borders are black. It runs Windows 8.1 and provides all the app and desktop features contained therein.

A few negatives include shipping without a regular plug (it charges over USB), lower-than-I’d-like screen resolution, and low res cameras. There is also no Windows button, but you can reach the Start menu using the Charms on the side of the screen.

Still, the battery life is decent, and that counts for a lot with me. Since it’s a great take-along tablet for entertaining your kids and basic utility use, you’ll want it to survive a short car ride, or a day out running errands. I did some fairly non-scientific tests just to get a ballpark figure about how long the battery would hold up. Fully charged to 100% battery to start, I tested its standby battery life. After 24 minutes it was at 98%. After over 3 1/2 hours it was at 95%. After 6 hours, 93%. Then 28 hours took it down to 64%. I lost track after that, but after 2-3 days, the battery was finally dead.

Next I tested the battery with a video playing via Netflix. Granted, I had turned the volume down, but starting with a 98% battery charge, after an hour it was down to about 80%, 1 1/2 hours to 69%, 3 hours to 37%, and 3 1/2 hours to about 30%. This is plenty of battery to keep your kids entertained for an outing, or to do some work while you commute. It will survive at least one movie, if not two (or several episodes of your kids’ favorite shows).

Image: Toshiba
Image: Toshiba

For full specs, visit the Toshiba site.

Though not a perfect “only” solution to most people’s computing needs, this tablet is my go-to device for entertainment on-the-go, and for handing to people of the young variety.

The Toshiba Encore Mini tablet costs about $100 and is a perfect gift idea, for yourself or others.

Note: As part of the Microsoft Bloggers program, I have been loaned hardware for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.

Family Sharing – A Fantastic new iOS 8 Feature!

Joey and his new to him iPhone 5. Image: Maryann Goldman
Joey and his new to him iPhone 5. Image: Maryann Goldman

New devices mean new decisions, and it turns out that Family Sharing on iOS 8 is the next best thing since sliced bread…really.

My 6th grader Joey, age 12,  had been pestering me for a phone ever since he started middle school last fall. I’m not sure that he really needs a phone, and I’m not 100% sure he can keep up with a phone; however, since I wanted to upgrade my iPhone 5 to an iPhone 6, I didn’t see any harm in giving him my hand-me-down. He already had an email address on Gmail, access to a computer, and an Android tablet, but he didn’t have an Apple ID or his own iOS device. There’s an iPad in the house that he can use, but it has my Apple ID set-up on it. I spent a good bit of time trying to decide if I should keep his iPhone under my Apple ID or try to give him his own. I decided it was time for him to have his own identity on things like Words With Friends and other games that he wants to play, but I also didn’t want the family to have to buy games and music more than once. What I discovered, sort of by accident, is that there’s a new Family Sharing setting on iOS 8 that would make setting up his iPhone a breeze. The first thing I did was make sure I was totally happy with the transfer of my data from iCloud and my old phone to my new phone. After that, I reset the iPhone 5 by using Settings -> General -> Reset -> Erase All Content and Settings.

As I went through the set-up screens on the iPhone 5, it I asked me to create a new Apple ID for Joey. When I put in his birthday, it told me that he was too young and that a parent needed to create his Apple ID using Family Sharing. Like many sites, Apple requires users to be 13 or older to create an ID.

I went back over to my iPhone 6 to try to figure out what to do. I went into Settings -> iCloud -> Family -> Create an Apple ID for a Child. Joey’s new Apple ID was automatically added to my Family. I was then able to log in on Joey’s iPhone, with the Apple ID that I created for him, and finish the set-up. Easy!

The base iOS 8 apps went onto Joey’s iPhone after the reset, and then I went into the App Store under Updates -> Purchased -> Family Purchases -> Maryann (me). I was able to download the apps that I thought Joey should have that I had previously purchased. Cool!

I followed a similar process in the iTunes store under More -> Purchased -> Family Purchases -> Maryann to download some of my music to Joey’s iPhone. Super!

Although Joey knows that he isn’t allowed to make purchases in the iTunes Store or App Store without my permission, there is now an extra safety net. The Family Share setting also generates a prompt to me to approve/reject any item that Joey tries to buy. Great!

The only problem I ran into is one that quite a few other people have run into, too.  I received this error message the first time I tried to download one of my purchased items to Joey’s iPhone:

Unable to Download : to download shared content, your Family must have a valid payment method.

I double checked my credit card.  No problem there.  Logging Joey out of his Apple account and then logging him back in fixed the issue.  Go to Settings -> iTunes & App Store -> Apple ID -> Sign Out then re-enter your Password and Sign In.

Joey has been using his iPhone for a few days now without issue, and I think this set-up is going to work well for our family. The upgrade to iOS 8 was worth it just for this feature alone…although there are quite a few other new features to check out, too.

A Thermal Camera for Your Mobile Devices

See heat in the dark with the Seek thermal camera for smartphones. Image credit: Seek Thermal.
See heat in the dark with the Seek thermal camera for smartphones. Image credit: Seek Thermal.

Thermal cameras are, by and large, prohibitively expensive for the average Joe. However, there is a new product which caters to the mostly untapped consumer market. Here’s the Seek thermal camera, an add-on for your smartphone.

Seek thermal camera. Image credit:
Seek thermal camera. Image credit:

The uses for a thermal camera attachment on your smartphone are amazingly varied:

  • Finding your pet in the yard after sunset: I have a neighbor who stands outside tapping on a can of food with a fork for 20 minutes every evening, trying to call his cat inside for the night. I bet he could use a thermal camera. I bet I could use him using a thermal camera.
  • Scanning a dark, empty parking lot or park for perps: If you find yourself walking through an empty public space in the dark on a regular basis, as I often did walking through campus at 3 am during grad school, a thermal camera—and a can of Mace—could bring you some peace of mind.
  • Scanning your yard for animals before taking out the trash: For those of you who keep posting bear videos on Facebook. Don’t let them surprise you!
  • Find drafts and leaks in your home: Comes in handy for slew of home improvement projects.
  • Scanning your kids while they sleep: I always wondered if my little ones are too hot or too cold at night. Am I underdressing them? Overdressing them? Are their feet too cold? Will they wake up if I try to feel them? (The answer to the latter is always yes.) While surface temperature is not true body temperature and a thermal camera will never replace a thermometer, having a thermal camera is a little bit like gaining a mom superpower.
  • Find boats or people overboard at night: If you’re a boat person.
  • Night tag: Okay, so perhaps this application alone doesn’t validate the price tag, but let’s call it a perk!

The Seek thermal camera uses a 12 micron sensor and produces a 32,136 pixel image that is 206 pixels by 156 pixels. Each pixel represents a temperature measurement—anything from -40 to 330 degrees Celsius can be accurately measured to a fraction of a degree, according to their specs—and the color scheme of the image is customizable in the app.

The app offers a gamut of settings and tools, but there is also a development kit available for programmers so you can hope for more apps using Seek in the future. Those apps could offer specialized tools for certain uses, or I can imagine really cool games that could make use of this 6th sense.

The hardest part about using this gadget is actually having it with you when you need it. It’s not likely you’d keep it on your phone all the time, so how do you keep it on your person in case you find yourself in a dark parking lot? The camera comes with a hardy plastic case that’s perfect for throwing into a purse or bag. The case also has a metal ring, presumably to add to a keychain like I tried, but the whole thing ended up making my key set way too bulky for my need. If you know you’ll only use it for a single purpose, like checking the yard for wild animals before letting your dog out at night, you could also give the camera a permanent home near the door. You’ll definitely want to decide where you’ll be storing it, though, or else suffer the consequences: Where is that darn camera? Yes, I have already lost it multiple times.

Another inconvenience that I experienced was that the camera didn’t fit with my phone case. So every time I wanted to use the camera, I had to take my case off and put it back on again after. My husband didn’t have this problem; the Seek fit on his iPhone 6 Plus with the Apple silicon case. Mine was an iPhone 5 with a Speck wallet case.

Minor inconveniences aside, the Seek can be a great toy for the gadget lovers or a very practical tool if you have a need for it. You can always find additional uses for it once you have it, but it’s much easier to validate the purchase if it solves a frequent problem in your life too.

Seek is available for Android and iPhone and retails at $199.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

GeekMom’s 2014 Gift Guide of Geeky Gadgets

Collage: Cathe Post

Is there a tech-savvy or gadget-happy individual on your gift list this year? Look no further than our recommendations for geeky gadgets!

Image: ASUS
Image: ASUS

ASUS Transformer Book You want the versatility of a tablet but the typing ability and full desktop use of a laptop, but can only afford one or the other? This product is a good choice. Price Varies

Image: Amazon

Color Cables Color Cables are vibrant 3- or 6-foot cables with a glow-in-the-dark coating. Available in iOS 30-pin, iOS Lightning, and MicroUSB, you’ll find that the price is right, as well. We experienced quick charge times and durable connections. You’ll feel good supporting a small company with this gift idea, too. $15-25


Cricut Explore The latest Cricut model is a high-end workhorse for any crafter. Cut vinyl, fabric, felt, paper, t-shirt transfers, and more. With the web-based Cricut Design software, you can make your own designs to cut. There are so many possibilities for this great machine. $299.99

Photo: GoPro
Photo: GoPro

GoPro Basic Camera For years we’ve had fun with GoPro cameras here at GeekMom, and now there is a streamlined version that’s a perfect fit for families. All of the quality and exceptional footage that you get from a pricier GoPro, but just the basic features. The new family-friendly price makes this a great pick for kids and adults alike. Paired with the free (easy to use) online movie-making program, this will easily be at the top of the favorite gifts list.  $129.99

The Lenovo Miix 2 8-inch. Image: Lenovo
The Lenovo Miix 2 8-inch. Image: Lenovo

Lenovo Miix 2 8-inch Windows Tablet If a smaller tablet is on your list (and you haven’t invested in one of the giant gadgets that pass for cell phones these days), check out this Lenovo. The tablet runs Windows 8 like a dream and is perfect for watching TV in bed or stashing in your purse for errands. $300

Image: Logitech

Logitech Bluetooth Multi-Device Keyboard Logitech’s keyboards are always great, but this wireless one can transition from your computer to your tablet to your smartphone. Just turn the dial to switch between three bluetooth devices—and it’s nice and portable. $49.99

Fullscreen capture 7222014 23021 PM
Image: Samsung

Samsung Galaxy Tab S If you are looking for a fast, bright tablet that can do several things at once, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S could be for you or a certain person on your gift list. It has a great camera, great sound, and expandable storage. How could you go wrong? $480

Image: Little Scholar

School Zone’s Little Scholar 8-inch Kids’ Tablet A super quick, durable kids’ tablet with a great quality screen that’s bigger than other kids’ tablets on the market. It runs Android 4.4 and comes loaded with 200 games. It has a straightforward, kid-friendly startup menu that’s easy to configure for your child’s needs and most-used apps. It’s not supported by Google Play, but you can easily get most apps you need from the Amazon app store. It has an SD card slot and an HDMI port. It’s a little big for small hands, but the screen looks great; the larger size is awesome for watching movies and TV shows. $200

See heat in the dark with the Seek thermal camera for smartphones. Image credit: Seek Thermal.
Image: Seek Thermal

Seek Thermal Camera for iPhone and Android Smartphones  For the gadget-loving geek, here is a new “toy” that’s sure to impress. The Seek is a small thermal camera that you can connect to your smartphone to detect infrared light. Find the source of air drafts in your house, find your pets outside in the dark, scan a dark parking lot (or house, or backyard) for hidden attackers, play midnight tag—there are so many applications for this gadget. $199

Image: TechShop

TechShop Membership and Gifts If your tech geek lives in or near San Carlos, CA; San Francisco, CA; San Jose, CA; Allen Park, MI; Round Rock, TX; Pittsburgh, PA; Chandler, AZ; or Arlington, VA, they can use the gift of a TechShop membership. A membership would gain your techy access to a wide range of equipment and classes at the TechShop locations. Classes can also be gifted. $125/month

Image: Vivitar

Vivitar XO 7-inch Kids’ Tablet If you’re looking for a small, kid-sized tablet that’s durable and fits nicely in a preschooler’s hand, this is a nice option (and it doesn’t require cartridges). You can have separate accounts for multiple kids, and there’s also a parent mode that’s a full Android tablet linked to Google Play. It has an SD card slot to add additional storage, and it uses a USB charger so you don’t have to carry around a specialized cable. Two models are available, one with all content in English and Spanish and one with everything in English and French. It comes preloaded with more than 100 games and books. The XO is part of the One Laptop Per Child program.  $149

Image: Zagg
Image: Zagg

Zagg InvisibleShield Glass Screen Protector This extremely protective and smooth-as-glass (um, because it is glass) screen protector works very well and is a great choice for anyone who prefers the feel of glass to the feel of plastic. Price Varies

MyCharge Talk & Charge Batteries Simplify Charging While Using Your Phone

MyCharge iPhone
MyCharge Talk & Charge for iPhone, Image: MyCharge

There are a lot of choices when it comes to keeping your phone charged when you’re on the go, but they don’t all make using your phone at the same time easy. Awkward cables, the need to switch cases, or bulky charging units can make it all but impossible to use your phone while it’s getting juiced. The MyCharge Talk & Charge devices finally take care of that problem.

Available in two flavors for either the iPhone 5S/5C/5 or for phones with a micro-USB port, these battery packs are slim, lightweight, and roughly the size of your average phone. They have built in cables that let you plug them in while the battery itself stays out of the way, tucked snug against the back of your device. There are even little rubber feet so that it won’t scratch your case or phone.

MyCharge Talk & Charge for Micro-USB Devices, Image: MyCharge

You can still easily hold your phone for texting, emailing, or talking without the battery getting in the way. It makes your phone thicker, but it doesn’t make it unusable or force you to unplug and stop charging. It also doesn’t require you to swap out your case since the built-in plugs work with whatever case you usually have on your phone.

The iPhone version will provide an additional 13 hours of talk time with a 3000mAh lithium ion battery. It’s also capable of pass through charging and will charge your device and the battery at the same time. It measures just 4.9″ x 2.4″ x 0.5″ and weighs only .26 pounds.

MyCharge Micro USB
MyCharge Talk & Charge for Micro-USB Devices, Image: MyCharge

The micro-USB version also has pass through charging and will provide an additional 18 hours of talk time with a 4000mAh lithium ion battery. It measures 5.0″ x 2.5″ x 0.4″ and weighs the same trim .26 pounds. This one does double-duty with the addition of a USB port that will allow you to charge a second device at the same time.

Both also have an LED readout so you know how much charge is left in the battery. Simply press a button and the four lights display the charge in easy-to-read 25% increments so you won’t be caught off guard when it’s empty.

Image: MyCharge

Using these on my phone, I found that they quickly became my favorite battery packs for a couple of reasons. The biggest reason is that they are so darn small and easy to use. It seems that as soon as my phone runs out of juice and I plug it in, that there are ten different reasons that I need to use my phone.

It’s awkward with a big cable and an even bigger charger. This one is so small it was still easy to hold my phone in one hand for texting. It was also small enough that I could easily hold it to my ear to talk without having the battery hanging awkwardly.

The Talk & Charge batteries also didn’t run hot, which many batteries do especially when you’re charging and using your device. And they charged quickly, giving my phone a healthy charge in a very short time, again, while I was using it, too.

Image: MyCharge

These are small enough that you can carry them anywhere and are perfect for tucking into your purse or bag just in case you run low. They’re also great to have on hand in case the power runs out and you need to make sure you still have your phone ready to use.

The MyCharge Talk & Charge for iPhone and micro-USB retail for $59.99 each and are a great solution for those looking for lightweight phone charging that doesn’t hamper your ability to actually use your phone.

I received these products for review purposes.

Product Review: JBL Synchros E40BT Bluetooth Headphones

The JBL Synchros over-ear Bluetooth headphones are super-comfy for all-day-at-your-desk wear. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The JBL Synchros over-ear Bluetooth headphones are super-comfy for all-day-at-your-desk wear. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Along with the JBL earbuds I had the chance to try out earlier this month, I had received some more substantial over-ear headphones to review. I elected to review these separately because I wanted to open up my options for trying them out; I used them at my office for about a month.

The JBL Synchros E40BTs are over-ear wireless Bluetooth headphones. I loved the idea of these high-quality headphones being wireless. So I decided to give these a chance at my new office to see if they would play for me ALL DAY. Read on to learn more about these headphones.

What Comes in the Box

The E40BT headphones include a charging cable along with a custom auxilliary cable so the headphones will work even when there isn't enough battery life for the wireless Bluetooth version. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Unlike the other Bluetooth headphones I’ve reviewed, this set includes a connection cable so that you can still use them as wired headphones. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
  • E40BT Synchros headphones
  • Instruction booklet
  • USB charging cable
  • Auxiliary-style  cable to use the headphones even after the battery dies


Very little setup is required. My headphones arrived partially charged, so I was able to make the Bluetooth discoveries with my devices right away. I enjoyed several hours of listening before they needed a charge.

Bluetooth setup is controlled with the power switch, and the instruction booklet provides instructions for pairing with your smartphone, tablet, or computer. I had no problems with Bluetooth discovery.

Fit and Comfort

I find these headphones very comfortable in not-too-warm temperatures. Unlike other full-sized studio headphones I’ve reviewed, I never felt the weight of the headphones even after several hours of listening. The ear cups and headband have leatherette-covered padding, which makes for a comfortable fit, but I’d be wary of how the leatherette will feel if it’s really warm. It’s not a porous material and might not be very comfortable on the ears if you’re sweaty.

The headband is adjustable, and I found a size to fit me very well. I have a larger-than-average head, but I was surprised that the best fit for me is the maximum size. I didn’t think my head was that big.

I wore these headphones up to four hours straight while working at my desk and didn’t have problems with comfort or fit.

The earcups pivot for an even more comfortable fit, and can pivot inwards 90-degrees for nearly-flat storage.


All the controls for the E40BTs are on the left earcup. This is convenient, but I will explain some design concerns I have with the power switch.

Once you have music playing, you can use the side panel to control volume and the play/pause/fast forward features. The circle-icon next to the “J” in “JBL” is a multi-function switch that can pause, play, and control the fast forward and rewind of tracks. You have to hit that button up to three times in succession to get the function you desire, and I found this cumbersome. If you don’t hit the button three times with the correct spacing between the taps, you don’t get the desired rewind.

You can also use these headphones for phone calls when paired with a smartphone. The control buttons work similarly; use the multifunction switch to accept and hang up phone calls.

All the controls, from the on/off switch, to the music controls, are on the left earcup. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

The power button is the rectangular button with the Bluetooth logo on it. It doubles as the Bluetooth control button. Follow the instructions to have your devices discover and pair with the headphones. I was able to have this work with my iPhone 5S, MacBook Pro, and Samsung Galaxy Note tablet.

I do not like the placement of the power/Bluetooth button. When putting on and taking off these headphones, my left thumb naturally wants to be right on that button, and I have inadvertently turned off my headphones dozens of times in the weeks I’ve been using these headphones at work. I think this button would be better on the bottom of the earcup instead of on one side or the other.

If you don’t want to use the Bluetooth feature (such as with a dead battery), you can connect the wired cable with the headphones. The 2mm port is located at the bottom edge of the left earcup. Be careful not to lose this cable! You cannot simply buy a generic auxiliary cable to serve this purpose, but if you can find a 2mm to 3.5mm cable, it might work as a replacement. You could also invest in an adapter if you need to replace the cable with a 3.5mm to 3.5mm aux.

It takes about 3 hours to fully charge the headphones with the included USB cable. It conveniently fits into the same 2mm port that the auxiliary cable uses. From this charge, expect up to 16 hours of listening (which I easily got from my charges), and up to 25 hours of telephone talk time (which I cannot vouch for, since I haven’t talked that much on my phone).

I really liked not having my headphones yank me back to my seat when in my office, which I’ve experienced many times with wired headphones. I could wear them for several hours in my office while working on lesson planning and checking emails.

Sound Quality

While these aren’t advertised as “noise canceling,” they do have a small amount sound insulation since the ear cups completely cover your ears. I found the sound quality very good; I mostly listened to numerous channels with my office computer while working at my desk, with channels ranging from “Cake” to “311” to “Mahler.” I also used them to listen to online training modules and a couple of YouTube videos. Usually I had to ensure the volume was low enough so I could hear if someone was at my office door, but if I wanted to make it louder, I could get the headphones to play pretty loudly without compromising the treble or bass qualities of the music.

JBL advertises something called “PureBass Performance” which is a proprietary feature advertising “high-performance drivers,” “outstanding frequency response,” and “pure bass which is deep, powerful, and accurate.” I’m not super-sensitive to whether these qualities are accurately described, but it certainly felt to me as though these features were there, especially with Mahler’s 1st Symphony.

I’ve no complaints about the E40BT’s sound quality.


The “ShareMe” feature is unique to JBL’s higher-quality headphones. It can allow two or more users with JBL’s ShareMe-featured headphones to stream music directly from one set of headphones to the others. The control button on the left earpiece with with “play arrow” is what can control this.

I was unable to test this feature: I only received one pair of E40BTs, and I know no one else with these headphones.


With the exception of the placement of the power/Bluetooth button, and the multifunction button being a bit complicated, I thoroughly enjoyed these headphones in an office or commuter environment. These are not for exercising (the JBL Synchros earbuds I recently reviewed are more appropriate for high-impact activities).

JBL E40BT headphones come in a variety of colors, and is available at retailers such as Amazon for an MSRP of $99.99.

GeekMom received this product for review purposes.

Product Review: JBL Synchros In-Ear Headphones

JBL's Synchros Reflect in-ear headphones integrate many runners' preferences. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
JBL’s Synchros Reflect in-ear headphones integrate many runners’ preferences. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

This past month I had the privilege of reviewing several of JBL’s latest in their Synchros line of headphones. In this post I’ll be reviewing two of their newest in-ear headphones, the Reflect Sport Headphones and the E-10.

JBL Reflect

The Reflect headphones were designed with the headphones-wearing athlete in mind. I took these headphones out for several runs this past month and was absolutely enamored with their comfort and sound quality. While I can talk about the PureBass sound quality, there are numerous other reviews of these products that can cover it with more authority than I could.

However, I am quite picky when it comes to headphone comfort during high impact activities such as running and mountain biking. This is where I feel my opinion matters.

The JBL Synchros Reflect has really comfortable ear tips. Three sizes are included for a custom fit. Image: JBL.

The Reflect has several attributes that will make this a favorite set of corded headphones for athletes.

  1. Silicone ear tips. The packaging states that they’re called “Freebit” ear tips. They are similar to the PEAR Sport headphones I had reviewed earlier this year, where the silicone piece tucks up into the curvature of the outer ear. There are three pair of these tips in three sizes, so you can use the ones that best fit your ears. When properly installed, there is NO MOTION in your ears. A very comfortable fit.
  2. Reflective flat cord. The flat cord helps to keep the cable from tangling as easily, and it is coated in a silvery reflective surface. This makes it wonderful for nighttime runs.
  3. Magnetic earpieces. The “JBL” ends of the earpieces are magnetic and will clasp together for easy storage. Also, you can clasp the earpieces around your neck for security.
  4. All-in-One controller just below the left earpiece. You can use these headphones to have phone conversations (as well as other microphone-enabled tasks on an iPhone). There is a single controller bar, similar to what you get on the iPhone 5’s headphones, with which you can start or stop the music, increase or decrease the volume, and pick up or hang up the phone.
  5. Clip. There’s a tiny little clip at the left and right ear wire junction. It works well for me on a v-neck shirt, but on a crewneck I have to bunch it up to get the clip aligned. I only tried it for the purposes of this review and didn’t clip them while actually working out.
  6. Sweatproof. This is merely what I saw on the box. I have sweat plenty in these headphones in the three weeks I’ve had them and so far have had no problems. I’ve had other headphones destroyed by sweat and it has always taken at least six months.
  7. Dual cord lengths. This is my favorite attribute, because I usually connect my headphones to my iPhone in an arm band. In the past, I had to figure out how to wrap the excess cord so that it doesn’t bounce around when I run (a pet peeve of mine). The detachable cord allows you to have a shorter cord for running, and a longer cord when needed.
In both of these photos you can see the reflective properties of the headphone cable. The top photo shows the longer cord. The bottom shows how short the cable can be. See the next section for some limitations to how well this works on the iPhone 5. Photo: Dave Vollmer.

Here are some other notes about the Synchros Reflect:

  1. The plug to connect the headphones to your device is nearly twice as tall as the iPhone’s original headphones. Let me explain why this is an issue. The iPhone 5 decided to have its headphone jack on the bottom of the device. So if you want it face-up in an armband, the plug is near the crevice of your inner elbow. The longer plug on the Reflect can dig into your skin, unless you flip the phone around such that the headphone jack is facing up. You might end up with several apps that don’t work that way, but the ones I care about, such as Nike+, will be fine.
  2. The instructions for how to use the controller button near the left earpiece are complicated and different than other similarly-featured headphones. The center button is to be depressed once to start/stop music, twice to fast forward one track, and three times to rewind one track. I had a very hard time controlling my music this way. If you take your time depressing the buttons, you will get the wrong response. I guess this takes practice.
  3. Reflect headphones are not completely interchangeable between iPhone and Android devices and JBL has released separate models for them, both of which are the same price. I received the Reflect-I for my iOS devices, but if you will be using these headphones with any Android devices you have to make sure to buy the Reflect-A model for full operability. You can use an -I model in an Android device—and vice versa—and you will be able to hear things just fine. However, don’t expect the controller under the left earpiece to function properly. There are more color options for the Reflect-I model than the Reflect-A.

JBL’s Synchros Reflect-I and Reflect-A headphones are available through major electronics retailers such as Amazon with an MSRP of $59.99.

JBL Synchros E10

The Synchros E10 headphones are a basic model of in-ear headphones, particularly well suited for listening to your favorite tunes while on your commute or while flying. They are super-lightweight and will coil up nice and compact for easy travel.

The Synchros E10 headphones are perfect for commuters and travelers. They pack up nice and small. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The Synchros E10 headphones are perfect for commuters and travelers. They pack up nice and small. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

The E10s are fully compatible with iOS and Android devices, as well as with laptops and even old-school headphone jacks. It includes assorted sizes of silicone earpieces for a comfortable fit. In addition, the clear plastic case is reusable, perfect for packing the headphones for a trip. The cable is flat to minimize tangling.

There are a couple other nifty features. There’s a sliding piece on the right and left cables so that you can clip the headphones tightly below your chin, if you are doing anything high impact with these headphones. Like the Reflect line, there is a multi-function button on the left-ear cable. This one is more simple: the single button only starts and stops music, or picks up/hangs up your phone. There is neither volume control, nor is there forward/backward control with this button.

I had no problems with the sound quality with these headphones. It also has the “PureBass” sound feature that the Reflect models do, and I could hear the strong bass loud and clear with the Pearl Jam and Daft Punk with which I tested these.

The E10 comes in a variety of colors. As you can see, the review model I received was purple.

Ready to travel! My E10s fit nicely in the included carry case.

The JBL Synchros E10 retails for $39.95 and is available through major electronics retailers such as Amazon.

GeekMom received these products for review purposes.

Mommy and Me Time With Pokemon XY

My son has all the best badges! \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
My son has all the best badges! \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

Pokemon XY reintroduced me to my love of the Pokemon world. Not to age myself, but I loved playing the original Pokemon Red on my Game Boy color when I was twelve years old. Over time though, I lost my love of Pokemon somewhere between my teenage years and my adult years. Thanks to a Nintendo 2DS and Pokemon XY, I’ve rediscovered my long-lost love of trying to “catch them all.”

In the past few months, my life has gotten not only complicated but stressful, and one day while looking for a way to relax, my younger brother brought over his old Game Boy Advance and his Pokemon games for me to play.


My love of Pokemon instantly came back to me like an old friend who had been away on vacation. I carefully changed the battery in the game console, blew it out to rid it of any dust, and then I sat down and got to work trying to catch them all.

A funny thing happened that day. Not only did I rediscover my love of Pokemon, but my 8-year-old son discovered his love as well. He was intrigued by the old Game Boy system and instantly wanted to play. Of course, he was a little disappointed when he asked if it would work with the iPad and I told him no <shaking my head>. Despite the fact that his newer Nintendo 3DS is fancier and has two back-lit screens, he was still excited to sit down and play on my old Game Boy Color and learn how to capture Pokemon of his own.

As I started to play, I remembered the fun I used to have playing video games. You see, as the years have gone by, the consoles have become more advanced and the graphics more realistic, causing me to get migraines from a few minutes of play…

With the video game trend growing in terms of graphics and realism, I was afraid I would be stuck playing my Game Boy Color for the rest of my life (or its life, whichever ended sooner). Then…I saw the light in the form of the Nintendo 2DS and Pokemon XY. With the gentle graphics in Pokemon XY and the non-3D effect of the 2DS, I’ve learned I can play for up to 45 minutes without any regret.

It didn’t take long before my son discovered my shiny new hardware and a few days later (and a lot of begging on his part), I downloaded the game onto his DS so we could play together.

I’ll admit that I was a little skittish giving my son his own Pokemon. After all, he doesn’t know the difference between the types, their unique powers, or how to level them up to defeat the gym leaders. I decided to put my fears and worries aside and let him find his own way. Turns out, that wasn’t such a bad idea, because the game pretty much taught him everything he needed to know. With the exception of choosing his first Pokemon because it was “cute,” he’s battled his way through more gym badges than I have and captured a nice array of Pokemon (in my defense, it’s my lack of time, not skill, that has allowed him to pass me in gym badges).

After playing for a few days, I realized a few differences in this Pokemon game versus the ones I grew up with.

The first difference I noticed was the ability to choose between a male or female lead character and whichever you chose to be, your companion will be the opposite. Something else I noticed was the inclusion of a few more friendly characters, mostly trainers your character’s age, to help you along the way. Each of them has a different reason for catching Pokemon, just like each player in the real world has a different reason for playing.

Pokemon XY also has a few new faces, including three new starter Pokemon. In case you’re wondering, my son chose Chespin and I chose Fennekin (whom I’ve nicknamed Fen). There’s also a wide range of game-version-specific Pokemon, and a few other features that the previous games I’ve played didn’t have, including fancy boutiques, gourmet restaurants, and five-star hotels.

The boutiques are special, because they sell a wide variety of fashions in which to dress your character up, and further personalize the game character to its real-world player. I didn’t think I would care too much about the fashions, but then I realized I could get everything from my hair cut, to contacts, to jeans, and t-shirts that reflected my own style instead of the boring default style the game developers give you.

The restaurants are also pretty neat to check out, as some of them only cater to special Pokemon types. Make sure you check them out when you run into them because some of the food provides special energy to you and your Pokemon.

Of course, no game is perfect and I found a couple of things particularly annoying.

First the gym leaders are sometimes easier to beat than the ordinary trainers you find on the paths to the city. I have four badges, and so far I have yet to lose to a gym leader in a battle. Actually, the further along I get in the game, the easier it seems to be to beat the gym leader. Kalos City is the exception, because before you can get to the gym leader you have to answer three quiz questions and beat three trainers. If you choose the wrong answer to the question, you have to retry the question and face another trainer until you get it right.

The second thing I found annoying was how many times I would talk to someone and they would say “here’s something to help you along your journey.” For players who get stuck, this is great. For those who prefer to battle their way to the top with minimum interference, this will hinder your experience. If you prefer to train your Pokemon the old fashion way, you know, through battles…talk when you want and skip around. There are times when talking to someone is required and most of the time, the game will clue you in.

In the beginning, I found the amount of cash you win from various trainers to be a little excessive. After visiting some of the boutiques for clothes, Pokemon gear, and other items, I realized the insane amounts of money you win is actually necessary if you want to purchase any of the upgrades.

There are a few other added bonuses to this game that I haven’t played with much, but seem like they would be fun for younger players. One of those features is Pokemon Amie, and it reminds me of Nintendogs for the DS. Basically this is the area where you get to play and feed your Pokemon like it was a virtual pet.

It’s been fun getting back into the Pokemon world and teaching my son everything I know about the game. And next to reading comics, it’s become one of our favorite ways to spend time together.

Overall, Pokemon XY has given me a way to relax and spend some quality time with my son. What more could a mom ask for in a game?

Pokemon XY is available for Nintendo DS consoles. Check your local game seller or Amazon for pricing and availability.

Disclaimer: GeekMom received a review sample. 

Samsung Galaxy Tab S: I’m No Longer a Kindle Fire User

See how GeekMom Cathé, dedicated Kindle user, liked the new Samsung Galaxy S tablet.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S. Image used with permission.

When it comes to tablets, my family has always gone with Amazon’s Kindle Fire. We have Android phones, but we use them for GPS, listening to music, sending texts, and taking something called a phone call on occasion. We don’t untilize our phones as tiny tablets because they are, well, tiny.

So, when given the opportunity to try the new Samsung Tab S for a few weeks, I was excited to see what it could do that my laptop and Kindle Fire couldn’t. After all, GeekMom Patricia shared her experiences with the Galaxy Note 8, so I had high hopes for this device.

We were in a cave where the only light was coming in through the water. No editing was done to this photo. You can see the fish and the kids clearly. Image: Cathe Post

Camera: The camera ended up being a surprising feature. I am constantly taking pictures with my phone to post on my blog. But with that routine, I take pictures, go home, download the photos on to my main computer, and import them into WordPress. The camera on the Samsung is actually nicer than my Droid camera. Since the Samsung has a larger screen than the phone (and is faster), I am able to do everything on one device. The action of taking pictures on a device larger than a phone was foreign to me since our Kindle is first gen (with no camera). The photos, at first glance, we’re blurred and grainy. Then, I started looking at the situations I was shooting in: dark, back-lit, and overcast conditions. Considering this, the zoo shot seen here is pretty darn good. The only light is the dreary overcast sun coming in through the water. You can still tell who the people are and you can see the fish. Also, after talking with a couple of iPad users, I am super happy with the ease of taking a simple picture. On iPads, the camera lens is located in the corner of the device where a finger would natural rest so a picture can be taken. The Samsung placement of the camera (in the center of a long side of the device) made it so I didn’t even have to think about how I was holding the device. Also, on newer Kindle models, there is only a front facing camera, so you have to guess if your subject is in frame unless you are shooting a selfie. The Samsung has both an 8 megapixel back facing camera and a 2.1 megapixel front facing camera.

Apps: Only having had experience with first generation Kindles, being on a different Android device was refreshing. I could access the Kindle apps I had previously purchased plus have access to the entire Google Play store, which offered so many more options than Amazon. Storage has been upgraded from the Galaxy Tab Pro model. Where you could add 64GB to the existing 16 in the Pro model, the Galaxy Tab S starts with 16 or 32GB, and an additional 128 can be added.

Keyboard: The integrated keyboard with the Android 4.4 Kit Kat OS responds like a normal keyed keyboard. The keyboard responds to commands whether you type like you are on your phone or if you treat it like a standard keyboard. This means you can either hold a key for the other options to come up in a drop down menu, or you can hold the shift key for standard keyboard options.


Display: 10.5” (267.2mm) 2560×1600(WQXGA) Super AMOLED

  •  LTE : 800/900/1800/2600+850/2100
  •  3G : HSPA+42.2 850/900/1900/2100
  • 2G : GSM/EDGE/GPRS 850/900/1800/1900

Memory: 3GB RAM, 16/32GB Memory, MicroSD (up to 128GB)
Camera: Flash 8M w/ Flash LED + 2.1M
Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, MIMO WiFi Direct, BT4.0
GPS: GPS, GLONASS, Beidou (Not supported in USA, Canada)
Dimension, Weight:

  • Wi-Fi Model : 247.3 x 177.3 x 6.6mm , 465g
  • LTE Model : 247.3 x 177.3 x 6.6mm , 467g

Battery Capacity: 7,900mAh
OS / Upgrade: Android 4.4 (Kit Kat)
Other Services & Applications:

  • SideSync 3.0
  • Paper Garden
  • Multi-user mode
  • Kids Mode
  • WebEX
  • Remote PC
  • Hancom Office
  • PC Applications
  • Samsung Kies
  • UI / Web Browser
  • Samsung UI / Android
  • Chrome Browser

Audio: MP3, AMR-NB, AMR-WB, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, WMA, Vorbis, FLAC
Video: H.263, H.264(AVC), MPEG4, VC-1, Sorenson Spark, MP43, WMV7, WMV8, VP8
Recording : FHD (1920 x 1080) @30fps
Playback : WQHD (2560 x 1440) @30fps
Connectors: USB 2.0, 3.5mm Ear jack

Battery Life: I turned the brightness up to full and played the Avengers movie on Netflix. The battery was at 93% when the movie started. At the end of the movie, the battery was at 73%. Keeping the brightness up all of the way does drain the battery faster, but it still has a decent battery life.

Kids Mode (and other on board services): The device comes with a Kids Mode to which you can add videos, pictures, and apps. I didn’t have an opportunity to fully test this, but in general poking around, it seemed easy to use but may be a little time consuming to fully personalize.

Other services are included on the device. Most of them were not something I had any reason to use, so I didn’t get into them.

A comparison between the Galaxy Tab S (left) and the Galaxy Tab Pro (right), Tab S has a slightly larger screen. Both devices are at full brightness so you can see the difference an Amoled display makes. Image: Cathe Post

Amoled Display: The full brightness level of the display is almost blinding when reading, but is very useful when dealing with photographs. It is noticeably brighter than the previous model of Samsung. The screen itself is also slightly larger than the previous model measuring at 10.5 inches instead of 10.1.

How much more did I like the Samsung than the Kindle Fire? So much so that I purchased the Galaxy Pro (a model that came out earlier this year). The $500 price tag on the new Tab S was a little steep for me to swallow when the differences between it and the previous model were a brighter screen, more storage, a different personal magazine program, a .4 inch larger screen, and Kids Mode. I paid $100 less for the Galaxy Pro that came out earlier this year.

That doesn’t mean the Amoled screen isn’t worth it. My mom was so impressed by the screen she purchased the new Samsung Galaxy S. She wanted to have the option of having a brighter screen if the situation called for it. She also was a first generation Kindle Fire owner. So, the Samsung was a huge advancement.

Overall, who am I kidding? I’m sorry we ever bought a Kindle. We’ll look at Samsungs first when buying future tablets. For me, having the ability to play a game, listen to music, do a blog post from start to finish on one device (pictures and all), or write a simple Word document all on a device that fits easily in my purse is one of the most useful investments I have made in a long time.

A case is also a must for a device like this. If you are looking for an actual keyboard, I recommend the $30 Moko Case. It has a detachable Bluetooth keyboard so you can have a keyboard, or leave it behind. It is also low fuss when trying to take pictures. If you just need a case to help protect the device, the IVSO Case is an affordable way to go. For $10 it will protect against scratches, auto wake/sleep when opening or closing the cover, and if you use your device as a camera, you won’t have to fight with the back cover being in the way of the viewfinder.

If you are in the market for a new tablet I highly recommend the new Samsung Galaxy Tab S. It is available in most electronics retailers including Amazon for $499(ish).

GeekMom was loaned a review copy for the purposes of this review.

ASUS Transformer Book T100TA-H2-GR Review and Giveaway!

Image: ASUS
Image: ASUS

Tablets are here to stay. Since they came on the scene, they’ve taken over a lot of portable computing needs. They are great for staying connected on-the-go, watching movies and television in bed, entertaining and educating your kids, and managing simpler tasks such as funds transfers, feed reading, and file access. But what if you really need to get some heavy duty work done? Tapping out a quick Facebook update isn’t a huge burden on a touchscreen. But what if you want to write a blog post, compose a sensitive email, or write a book? In those cases, a keyboard is a must.

Sure, there are some Bluetooth keyboards out there for use with tablets, but they don’t add additional functionality, such as more hard drive space or ports. ASUS, however, now makes a convertible tablet that meets all of those requirements. It’s a nice tablet with a long battery life and plenty of storage, but dock it with its keyboard and it has more hard drive storage than my laptop, along with a bonus USB port.

The ASUS Transformer Book T100TA-H2-GR is a very compact device that can operate however you like. Use it as a tablet, or easily connect the screen to the keyboard dock with a satisfying *click* and use it as a diminutive laptop. It operates a bit like a netbook, but with all the bonus features, it is a much more functional machine.

Image: ASUS
Image: ASUS

What’s it like to use? The device is a bit heavier than I’d like, but it houses a beautiful display and the aforementioned storage. It probably won’t run your memory-heavy games or applications as well as a desktop or performance laptop, but that’s not what it’s designed for. It’s designed to be an auxiliary machine.

The ASUS turns on like a tablet, with a low-profile power button that you simply press and hold. The screen is crisp. The keyboard is nice and springy for typing, though it is more cramped than a conventional keyboard. Experience tells me that it is easy to get used to typing in small quarters, however. The trackpad isn’t quite as responsive as I’d like, and the trackpad button click sounds remind me of days gone by, but it does the job. And I’m usually tapping the screen anyway.

The tablet portion is extremely easy to undock from the keyboard. One simple button press and the tablet pulls right off. It can be re-docked just as easily, and the connectors hold the screen fast to the base. And since it’s a tablet, it’s also a touch screen.

Setup of the device is a breeze; just follow the usual Windows 8.1 setup instructions. In addition to the usual Start screen tiles, this ASUS device also includes an icon for ASUS WebStorage (cloud storage), Line (a free messaging app), ASUS PhotoDirector (a photo management app), and ASUS PowerDirector (a photo and video editor). Also, if you’ve got any additional questions about how to use the device, they’ve kindly pinned the digital version of the user manual to your task bar.

Device Protection

Though, as a computing society, we’ve been carrying around realistically portable computers for at least a decade or more, we still worry about things going wrong. We buy screen protectors, bags, sleeves, and cases to protect our investments. But sometimes accidents happen. With the purchase of an ASUS Transformer Book T100TA-H2-GR, however, you get a year of the ADP protection program for free. This protection program covers much more than parts and labor for defective hardware. Drop your backpack just a bit too hard, damaging your device? Spill coffee on the keyboard, rendering it useless? This type of damage is typically covered under the ADP program. Visit the ADP website for more details. It is a fantastic bit of insurance that will help set your mind at ease about investing in such a device, for yourself, your kids, your college student, or your aging parents.


  • Detachable 10.1″ HD ISP Tablet plus Notebook
  • Comes with Windows 8.1 64-bit plus Microsoft Office 2013 Home and Student
  • 11-hour battery, built into the tablet portion
  • 30-Day Zero Bright Dot Guarantee against bright dots or dead pixels
  • Unlimited free ASUS WebStorage for one year
  • Quad Core Intel Atom processor
  • 1.33 GHz (Turbo 1.86 GHz)
  • 2GB DDR3 system memory
  • Intel GMA HD video graphics
  • Hard drive space: 64 GB SSD (tablet) and 500 GB HDD (keyboard)
  • 1.2MP HD Camera
  • Wireless 802.11AGN
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • MicroSD slot
  • SonicMaster Audio
  • Ports: On Tablet: 1 Audio Combo Jack (headphone/mic-in), Micro HDMI, Micro USB 2.0, Micro SD. On Keyboard Dock: USB 3.0.
  • 2.5 pounds
  • 31WHrs, 8060mAh, 2-cell Li-ion polymer battery pack
  • Dimensions: Tablet: 10.4” x 6.7” x 0.41”, Dock: 10.4” x 6.7” x 0.51”

The ASUS Transformer Book T100TA-H2-GR retails for $499 and is readily available on Amazon with free shipping. I recommend it to anyone looking for a device that bridges the gap between a conventional tablet and a laptop. It will fit in a small bag, and has the battery life to make it through the whole day.


If the incredibly varied functionality of this device appeals to you, enter to win an ASUS Transformer Book TA100TA-H2-GR of your very own! We are giving away one device to one of our amazing readers. To enter our giveaway just login to the Rafflecopter widget below with your Facebook account or email address (use a valid email so we can let you know if you win). You can then like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for up to two entries! If you already like/follow us it will still enter you in the giveaway. A winner will be chosen at random at the end of the contest and their name will be posted right in the Rafflecopter widget so you can check back to see who won.

Entries for the giveaway will be accepted until July 15, 2014 at 5:00pm Pacific Time and is open to residents of the U.S. and Canada. Once we have randomly chosen a winner, Microsoft will ship out the prize during the week of July 21. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Note: As part of the Windows Champions program, I have the use of Windows 8.1 devices for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these reviews are my honest opinions about the programs, hardware, and software involved.

Samsung ATIV One5 Stylus PC Review

Samsung ATIV One5 Stylus PC \ Image: Amazon
Samsung ATIV One5 Stylus PC \ Image: Amazon

If you’re a Samsung fan, listen up! The new Samsung ATIV One5 Stylus is something you might want to think about adding to your technology arsenal. With the sleek design of the Samsung Galaxy S4, this computer is just as easy on the eyes as it is on the brain to work. What makes this computer special is the Samsung SideSync software that allows you to sync up your Samsung devices with the PC. You can even view the screen of your Samsung phone on your PC for easy file transferring and typing.

If you’re a klutz like me, you will need a second set of hands to take it out of the box. Once you get the PC out of the box, you will find a wireless mouse, keyboard, and power cables. The bezel does move with the right amount of push so you can adjust the monitor to the right angle.

The AMD A6-5200 processor makes it a force to be reckoned with when it comes to speed and reliability, and with the AMD Radeon HD 8400 graphics card on top of that, you are all set for an amazing PC experience.

This particular model comes with a 21.5″ LED-back lit, high-definition, widescreen with 10-point capacitive multi-touch and built-in webcam. To break that down for you: multi-touch means you can touch the screen with more than one finger and it will respond. The capacitive part means if you try to touch the screen with gloves on, it won’t respond. The more points a screen has, the better the accuracy (10-points = more accuracy than a screen with 5-points).

The screen is really bright, and I love how my pictures look and video plays on it. I could definitely tell a difference between this display and my old monitor that was practically begging to be retired.

The all-in-one design has a plus and a minus. The plus side is that it takes up less space on my desk since I don’t have a tower. Another plus is the two 4-watt built-in speakers. The one thing I was more than ready to get rid of when I got my new computer were my speakers (they were old to say the least). Now that I don’t have to worry about my speakers clogging up my desk, I can put more important things in their place…like action figures (because we all could use a few more of those on our desks, right?)

A minus is that it’s an all-in-one and if something breaks, it’s not as easy as 1-2-3 to fix. I’ve had this PC for 3 weeks now and I’ve yet to figure out how to take the back off to work on it or upgrade the 4 GB of memory to the expandable 8 GB of memory.

Another thing some people might find to be a downside is the lacking in a CD-ROM drive. This doesn’t bug me so much because I have an external CD-ROM I plug-in on the rare occasion I need one for burning music.

As for ports, this baby packs two USB 2.0 ports, 2 USB 3.0 ports, a 3-in-1 media reader, and one HDMI port. Since the hard drive is only a 1TB and my music alone takes up about 90% of that, I use one of the USB 3.0 ports to plug-in an external drive for my pictures and such. I prefer it this way, because if my computer dies, I can get my music back from the cloud. I can’t say the same thing about my pictures (I still have a backup in place to cover my bases though).

If you need a few more USB ports, come to the dark side with this awesome Darth Vader hub.

In terms of network connections, it has an Ethernet RJ45 port, Wireless LAN, and Bluetooth 4.0.

Now we get to the part of the review where it’s important to talk about the operating system.

You can’t fault the makers for putting Windows 8.1 on the PC. It’s the most current operating system after all, and while some people find it annoying (a touch screen computer like this one) I’m really enjoying it.

If you plan on letting your kids use the touchscreen instead of the mouse to navigate, make sure you keep some screen cleaner handy (I might start buying it in bulk myself).

Something else I’m enjoying is the parental controls on my 8-year old’s log in. I’m still working out the kinks, but so far I’m happy with the limitations I’ve set and the weekly report it emails me tells me almost everything I need to know about his computer usage. The key is making sure he logs off when he’s done and my husband doesn’t play games or surf the internet while on my son’s log in.

Compared to my old computer, the Samsung ATIV One5 Style is a nice step up. The all-in-one allowed me to clean up our already crowded desk area and free up some space. My son loves the touchscreen capability and the 21.5″ screen when playing Minecraft and LEGO games. My husband is happy with the look and lacking of wires compared to our old computer. Me? I’m looking forward to upgrading the memory to match our old PC and learning how to use the webcam to make video posts.

The Samsung ATIV One5 Stylus pc retails for $799 and can be found at Best Buy stores.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Lenmar Mutant 20,800 Battery Pack: The Ultimate Charger For Tablets And Phones [Review]

Image: Lenmar

The Lenmar Mutant external battery with its 20,800 mAh lithium-ion battery and four USB ports is the must-have battery pack for this summer’s family adventures.

It goes without saying that one of the challenges families face while on their summer travels is keeping everyone entertained and connected on the way to all of the fun. Simply queuing up a movie doesn’t work when all parties can’t decide, or when a car isn’t equipped with a DVD player. Even on a plane, you can never be sure of what you’ll find on that in-flight entertainment menu so you better bring back-up.

The problem is, that backup needs power and no one wants to have to carry half a dozen different external power packs to charge all their myriad electronics. The Lenmar Mutant 20,800 takes care of this problem by giving you one source that will charge multiple tablets and mobile phones at the same time with plenty of juice.

Let’s start with the ports. There are two 2.4A USB ports for charging the new iPad, tablets, and smartphones. Next you get two 1A USB ports for charging just smaller USB devices like iPhones and mobile phones. That’s four devices that can be charged, at the same time. You even get one micro USB cable if you run short for one of your devices.

Lenmar Mutant
Image: Lenmar

This means you can have one single battery charging basically the whole family’s stuff at once. No need to pack multiple battery packs. This one pack has you covered and then some. It won’t just give you a partial charge, but fully charge all of these devices. A tablet can get two full charges or a mobile phone can be charged an incredible ten times before the Mutant runs dry. You simply aren’t going to run out of juice, hence their slogan “Undead Power” because you’ll never be dead. Cute.

Charging the Lenmar Mutant 20,800 is simple enough with an AC adapter that plugs right into the wall. They take it a step further, though, if you happen to be travelling out of the country. Adapter plugs that snap right onto the existing plug mean you can use this in the US, EU, UK and AUS. It’s a versatile power pack that’s truly designed for those who travel.

Even its size and shape, although not small, make it something you can easily take along. It measures 5.77″ x 4.67″ x 0.86″ and weighs 1.1 pounds so it won’t fit in your pocket, but it will easily fit in most purses, bags, or even a small laptop case. It’s an ideal size for a carry-on and will just as nicely fit into a tote bag. The only portability challenge is that it doesn’t include any kind of drawstring bag that would allow you to keep the battery, AC adapter, and any other adapters together.

Image: Lenmar

The Lenmar Mutant also functions as a hub, so you can plug it in to recharge the unit while charging your devices at the same time. The total recharge time for the Mutant is 10 hours, which may seem like a lot, but you’re generally only going to need to recharge it overnight. As long as you’re getting some sleep, you can be assured the Mutant will be ready to go. You’ll also know just how much charge it has thanks to four bright-green LED power indicator lights. Each one represents a 25% charge so you know when you’re running low.

The Lenmar Mutant 20,800 retails for $199 which, honestly, is a steal for such a versatile battery pack. It works for families on the go but is also a fantastic backup for you and your co-workers when you’re out of the office but still on the job. Stuck in an airport? Sitting in a crowded coffee shop? Power outage? It doesn’t matter if there’s a free outlet or even power when you’ve got the Mutant.

If you constantly worry about keeping your devices charged, the Lenmar Mutant 20,800 is an ideal way to remove that worry and keep all your tablets and phones ready to go.

I received this product for review purposes.

The Handy Ifrogz Tadpole Portable Speaker

Image: Ifrogz
Image: Ifrogz

There are a lot of Bluetooth speakers on the market. Most of them are pretty nice, but also have the price tag and size to match. What if you just want to listen to your music anywhere, without using headphones or having to use the phone’s built-in speakers?

The Tadpole portable speaker from Ifrogz is tiny, comes with its own carabiner so you can attach it to anything you like, and does the job. Just charge the device with the included short USB cable (it takes about an hour), pair via Bluetooth with your phone, and you’re ready to go for two or three hours of sound. The pairing is extremely easy, with no codes to enter and no struggle to discover the device. It’s also extremely small, at 2.67 inches tall, so it can be carried anywhere.

To use it, just turn it on and it takes over the volume from your phone. The Tadpole has no volume control of its own; you control it on your phone. You can control music tracks on the Tadpole device, though: play, pause, restart the current track, and jump to the next track. It’s a little hard to be precise with the button at first, and you might end up skipping a song when you meant to pause, but you quickly get the hang of it.

Image: Ifrogz
Image: Ifrogz

How is the sound? Well, for the size and the price of the Tadpole, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t think that something that small would make the room sound like a performance hall. I was right. It’s not meant to replace a powerful set of speakers. But it does work quite well as a personal speaker, for you and anyone close by. It’s also a very good option if you want to play some music, but you want to keep your phone safely tucked away in a pocket or under your desk. You’ll likely want to keep the volume in the lower half or 3/5ths of the range, as the quality suffers at high volume.

If you’re looking to fill a room with music, the Tadpole won’t do it very well. But if you’re looking for a personal speaker that fits in the smallest of pockets, it does the trick. Audiophiles likely won’t be satisfied, but for the rest of us, it fills a need. Price runs about $15-20 depending on source.

GeekMom received a promotional item for review purposes.