The Oura Ring

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I got the Oura Ring through Kickstarter earlier this year and have been wearing it daily since then. This has been one of the gadgets that has drawn the attention of friends, colleagues and strangers alike. The Oura Ring is primarily a sleep tracker with a variety of sensors to measure your activities and sleep 24×7. It connects to its app your phone through bluetooth for daily insights and analysis. In short, it functions just like the typical wrist worn fitness tracker with a focus on sleep tracking, but in a much smaller form factor which makes it more comfortable to wear all the time.

The ring is definitely a large one, and would not look out of place on Mogambo‘s fingers. That said, it doesn’t feel very heavy or uncomfortable to wear all the time if worn on the correct finger. The wife acceptance factor is also pretty low as I have found out over the last few months (I had to leave it behind during one of our family vacations), but it rarely fails to draw the attention of anyone seeing it for the first time.

The ring is not exactly symmetric and due to this, fits more comfortably on either the index & middle finger of your left hand or the ring & little finger of your right. There are also small protrusions on the inner bottom side of the ring for the heart rate and body temperature sensors, but they are imperceptible when worn.

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I got the glossy black version and it has resisted scratches quite admirably though it can attract fingerprints. The completely waterproof nature of the rings ensures that it gets a regular cleaning every time you wash your hands or take a bath, so hygiene is taken care of unlike some smartwatches with straps that can’t be wet.

The battery life of the ring has also been great, lasting 2-3 nights and worn all day long, depending primarily on how long I sleep. The ring charger is basically the case it came in with a micro-USB port for charging. When the battery reaches around 10-12%, the ring seems to stop recording any information. A full charge takes about an hour in this state.

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There have been quite a few firmware and app updates (about once a month) that have fixed bugs and tweaked how sensitive the ring is to activities. It also integrates with the Health app on iOS and sends the sleep data and resting heart rate every cycle.

The ring is pretty much passive in nature with no display or direct interaction mechanism. It instead uses the phone app to sends notifications like low battery or time to stand up. However, it does detect when it is worn and can accordingly activate its tracking. There are also ways to activate an airplane mode and reset it through the app.

Coming to its actual utility, I have found it to track my sleep quite well, though it is limited to one cycle a day. So, if you take a nap in the afternoon, it won’t show in the app, but it does track the info and seems to pass it on to the iOS Health app. For the sleep tracking, it detects the different phases of sleep – light, deep & REM – along with your resting heart rate and body temperature. It then gives a score to the sleep cycle and your overall readiness depending on a variety of factors, and provides a few suggestions for the day.

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The ring gradually learns your the range of your typical vitals and adapts its analysis accordingly. For example, one night I was coming down with a fever and it was able to detect the elevated body temperature and higher than usual body temperature to give a basic diagnosis the next morning.

I have found the ring to be quite useful to better understand my sleep patterns and the sources of disturbances in the cycle. There are however times when I have not been able to follow through on the suggestions given and at the end of the day a fitness tracker can only provide guidance but not enforcement for healthy habits.

There are also some areas of improvement for the ring – tracking multiple sleep cycles in a day for one and passing on the wealth of information it captures to the Health app for another. The latter area is especially one where the ring seems to be capturing a lot of data points, but not exposing them directly to the end user.

The Oura ring has turned out to be one of my most interesting backed projects on Kickstarter and it definitely is a precursor of things to come in the wearables and IoT space beyond today’s wrist worn devices. A hat tip to the Four short links post that led me to Oura.

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Thoughts on the Sep 2015 Apple event

Looks like Apple is revamping their event calendar and spacing out the events a bit more reasonable with one at the start and one towards the end. It was also a pretty busy event with ton of new launches and quite a few items that were skipped altogether – most notably the Mac OS X update. Of course the gist most of the announcements made in the event were known beforehand, but there were some surprises nonetheless.

The long rumoured iPad Pro finally made its debut and pretty much validated the strategy that Microsoft had pioneered with their Surface Pro series – you need a screen larger than 10″, split screen multitasking and a keyboard to make tablets more productive. And then of course there was the Apple Pencil which was again expected given the need for precision & flexibility when drawing. The 2 biggest takeaways was first, Microsoft demoing Office in the session that pretty much sums up the vastly different approach taken in the Satya Nadella era, and second the near doubling of quoted performance of the iPad Pro over the Air 2. This definitely makes the writing clearer on the wall for Intel, as the iPad Air 2 was nearly half as fast as the Core M processors and this should bring the performance in the same ballpark. In fact, in the last few years, Apple has probably been the biggest factor behind Intel’s innovations given the dearth of competition from AMD.

The fact that there was no other iPad update, unless you count the passing mention of the iPad mini 4, shows the speed at which the tablet market has matured and reached a good enough state. Arguably, the iPad 2 was at a good enough state in terms of hardware power and is still being supported with iOS 9. The iPad Pro is Apple’s attempt to grow the tablet market beyond home users and into the enterprise segment. That will definitely take a good deal of time given that most enterprises are Microsoft strongholds and the cost factor will prevent them from outright replacing PCs. Also, whatever the demos may want you to believe, most enterprise workers do not get to do such fancy stuff with their devices.

Health seems to have become the main usage focus for the Apple Watch given the proportion of time given for fitness and health related aspects. This is also probably one of the scenarios where the performance of the Watch will not be constrained as a first generation hardware. The partnership with Hermes also emphasised the luxury status of the Watch, and unless the pricing changes over the years (unusual for new launches), price will remain one of the major roadblocks to its adoption. The second generation of the Watch is likely to improve the internals significantly, and we are likely to have a white iPhone moment in the future with a round Apple Watch.

Then there was the Apple TV that at last gave us a glimpse of Steve Jobs famous “I finally cracked it” quote. Technology was definitely not one of the factors that had held back the Apple TV from being launched in the last couple of years, as the real battle is with the content providers rather than any of the other apps. In fact, it will probably be a while before people outside the US or some of the typical Apple strongholds will get much in form of regional content on the Apple TV. There was also no mention of HomeKit in the entire session, and this likely means that while the hardware is probably present in the new TV, the ecosystem has some way to go. The Apple TV also affirms the A8s new role as the venerable A5s long term replacement given that the iPod Touch and iPad Mini 4 upgrade to A8.

Last but not the least, the iPhone 6s\6s+ updates were also along expected lines and oddly enough relegated to the end of the show. Force Touch or rather 3D Touch definitely opens up a new dimension of interaction, but the real innovation will be when we have touchscreens that are able to simulate the feel of different surfaces. The camera improvements were also pretty much mandatory given the older 8 MP sensors inability to shoot 4K videos. The unusual part of the new devices was the increase in weight of both models by almost 10% and an almost imperceptible increase in size. Then there were a bunch of touted features that have been seen before in other phones on the Android and Windows side of the fence like moving photos (HTC Zoe) and using the display as a flash (LG).

Overall, the product launches rounded off a very busy year for Apple, but there was a sense of deja vu with many of the showcased features which other companies have previously demonstrated to about 80% of their potential. It is however, the last 20% of spit, polish and sweat that typically separates the Apple experiences from the rest.

Pebble Time: In hand and First impressions

I was one of the late backers of the Pebble Time smartwatch, and finally received it today. I backed it after the Apple watch event in early March and deciding that the first gen Apple watch was a bit too expensive for me. I also got lucky with the Pebble Kickstarter campaign and managed to switch my initial pledge of $169 to the early bird $159 when people had started backing out towards the end of the campaign.

The shipment was delayed by nearly a month, but that’s not too bad by Kickstarter standards, and as I had opted for the expedited option with prepaid duties and taxes, I received my package within a week of dispatch. I did have to stay in regular touch with the DHL support, first for the KYC documents and then for the description letter to the customs team. There was also the currency goofup on the invoice with labels in EUR though the payments had been in USD. This was something many of the Indian backers who received their packages before me had observed on the campaign portal. Fortunately for me, the DHL team seems to have managed to sort out these issues with the customs to ensure that I received the package just a day later than their estimate.

Anyway, coming to the Pebble Time, it is definitely quite lightweight and pretty comfortable to wear. The silicone strap seems quite comfortable as well and the material feels just like those silicone cupcake moulds and other similar kitchen accessories that one sees in stores. As for the display, it is fairly colourful, but a bit dim even with the backlight as many reviewers and users have observed. It is especially problematic in the current monsoon season with cloudy skies most of the time. That said, I’m sure app and watchface developers will start optimizing their products for the display in the coming months to improve readability. The double bezel is also on the thicker side by modern gadget standards, but haven’t found it to be very distracting so far. As for the coating on the steel frame, I suspect Pebble might be facing the same durability challenges as Apple did with the iPhone 5 black version, given the scratch reports from early users.

I opted to pair the Pebble Time with my iPhone 5s instead of the Mi 4, and loaded a bunch of apps and watchfaces on it including the PebbUp watchfaces that I’d backed on Kickstarter. The notifications have been trickling in since the pairing as well and the vibration is fairly gentle. I’d already done some notification management on my iPhone, so haven’t been getting flooded thus far, and even cricket scores are showing up thanks to the ESPNCricinfo app alerts.

I also did a full charge of the Pebble while installing the apps though it was well over 60% when I got it. It charged up pretty quick even from a laptop USB port. Also, no faulty cable.

Some of the other things I’d like to test in the coming weeks are Android support and voice replies, fitness tracking (already installed some apps), usage at work (currently working from home with a broken arm) and of course the battery life. In the meantime, checkout the unboxing and initial setup photos below.

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Mi 4: 2 month usage review

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Xiaomi Mi 4 unboxing

I finally replaced my Galaxy S3 in April after almost 3 years of service. It had begun to show signs of aging for a while, and I had managed to extend its usability for a few months by flashing Cyanogenmod on it last year. The gadetitis relapse hit me in March this year and I began scouting for my next Android phone in March. After lots of debate, it boiled down to the 64 GB versions OnePlus One and the Xiaomi Mi 4, and the Mi fan festival ensured that price was not going to be a factor when choosing between the two. In the end, the smaller form factor and IR port of the Mi 4 won and I even ended up renewing my Flipkart First subscription to get the phone in a day.

In terms of build quality, the Mi 4 has a very premium feel to it with its steel frame and from the front it has a striking resemblance to the iPhone 5\5s. The back though is a lot more mundane plastic, but there is a faint pattern visible under direct lighting. When it comes to the specs, it is pretty much a Nexus 5 in a prettier package. While it is missing NFC, it does have an IR port that can let you control TVs, ACs etc.

The camera, while pretty decent, pales in comparison to the iPhone 5s that I also own. Colours can turn out a bit oversaturated in shots and the video stabilization has its own issues resulting in jitters if you pan around quickly with shaky hands. I also discovered that the Carousel app from Dropbox can prevent you from shooting videos if you enable the camera overlay option in that app. I missed quite a few video opportunities before I was finally resolved the issue.

The on board storage of 64 GB for the price is the real icing on the cake, and this makes a difference over SD card slots when you have a huge library of games like I do thanks to the Humble Mobile Bundle sales. The 2014 flagship class specs comprising of a full HD display powered by the SnapDragon 801 ensure that games fly on the device. It is definitely a lot faster than my iPad mini that’s based on the aging A5 platform. I haven’t faced any heating issues with the phone so far, and the only time it heats up is when the signal is weak or while charging a severely depleted battery.

On the software front, MIUI also adds a touch of iOS-ness to the usability with some of its design philosophies and then some. Though it’s based on KitKat (without ART support at that), there are also a lot of thoughtful additions that MIUI brings that has kept me from switching to the Google launcher and making Google Now a first citizen. Lack of Lollipop is a bit of a downer, but ART brings its own set of compatibility issues with many games, and I’m quite happy with the phone’s performance and usability for the time being.

The missing NFC hasn’t bothered me much so far, and it was a rarely used feature of my Galaxy S3 as well. However, with Android Pay around the corner, NFC is bound to become a must have feature. That said, it will be at least a year or two before there’s any significant penetration of the service, and that always leaves room for a phone upgrade.

Battery life has also been quite good for me and it easily lasts a day even with some gaming and maps usage. During days of lighter usage, it even manages to stretch to 2 days. In fact, it easily beats my iPhone 5s in the battery life department and I can rely on it to get me through a busy day unlike the iPhone. Overnight discharge is also minimal – around 5-6%, while charging is also quite fast and I can get through a day by charging the phone for an hour in the morning.

Overall, I’m quite happy with the phone and don’t find any compromise or downgrade unlike some of my earlier purchases. It represents one of the best value devices on the market currently, though the Mi 4i is arguably better value if you’re not too fussed about metallic builds and IR ports.

My Gadgets of 2014

A laundry list of all the gadgets I used last year:

  • iPod Touch: I’d got this 2nd gen device in early 2010, and it has been pretty much reduced to the role of a music player now. The battery does not hold up for very long, but otherwise it’s fine. It’s stuck on iOS 5, and it made for some stunning contrast when I got my iPhone later in the year.
  • Lumia 720: This was my primary phone for nearly half of the year before I dropped it and busted the screen. It was a pleasure to use and I captured lots of photos & videos using this. I continue to recommend Windows Phones to people switching to modern smartphones for the first time.
  • Galaxy S3: A phone I got way back in mid-2012, and it never became my primary phone. It did serve as my primary internet device on the go till I got my iPhone. The performance also degraded over time and with my version of the device being omitted by Samsung for the Kitkat upgrade, I flashed it with Cyanogenmod 11. This did give a much needed performance boost, but I lost most of my gaming progress and ended up installing a lot fewer apps than I had before.
  • iPad mini: I had got the 64 GB version on the day it launched in India in Dec 2012, and it has become my go to browser & gaming device at home. iOS 7 & 8 have performed pretty decently on this though some of the newer games have performance issues due to the old old hardware. Even though I got the highest capacity, I still run into storage issues due to my large collection of games, music & comics (tons of them through Humble Bundle). Apart from this, my iPhone and office MacBook Air have ensured that I have companion devices to exploit the continuity features introduced in iOS 8 & Yosemite.
  • Kindle Paperwhite: I had gotten impatient and bought the 1st gen device in Dec 2013, just a few months before the launch of the second gen in India. Haven’t regretted the purchase though as my Kindle library has a couple hundred books plus there’s a bunch of them from other sources. I have read quite a few books on it and it is definitely more convenient than the iPad mini in that regard.
  • Canon EOS 550D: My DSLR completed 4 years this August, and I do manage to shoot special occasions on it – mostly cultural shows & family trips. The Lumia 720 & iPhone pretty much took over the casual (and not so casual at times) shooting role. Plus the phones are a lot more convenient for shooting video. My 4 lens kit along with a flash didn’t see any addition this year which is probably a sign of things to come.
  • Acer laptop: This Windows 7 machine has been through a hard disk replacement due to failure but manages to trudge on. I had bought it with the intention of gaming, but it seems to be having heating issues of late when running heavier games. Its role has been pretty much reduced to that of a home server, handling the occasional download and streaming duties. Gaming & browsing have been pretty much shifted to the iPad & smartphones though it manages to hang on to the printing duties.
  • TP Link modem & wifi routers: I had started off with a 3G wifi router a couple of years back to make the most of my MTS connection. We eventually went for an MTNL connection and a DSL modem cum wifi router took over as the main connection, and I shifted the old router to the role of a range extender for my bedroom. They’ve been doing pretty well apart from the streaming issues with the Apple TV.
  • MacBook Air: Thanks to my role of managing the official mobile apps at work, I ended up replacing the work HP Windows laptop with a MacBook Air in April. It’s been a pleasure to use, and took me a few weeks to appreciate the difference between Windows & OS X. In terms of the OS both Windows & OS X have their strengths & weaknesses. The real difference in user experience comes from the hardware – the default SSD in particular. This makes a ton of difference to the responsiveness of the machine and guarantees a near tablet\smartphone like response. I’m sure Windows laptops can feel the same way, but you’d be hard pressed to find anything priced below a MacBook Air equipped with SSDs by default.
  • Google Glass: Another device that I got to use for a few weeks due to my work role. Definitely not a mainstream device, especially in its current form, but it will certainly have a major role to play in the enterprise. The hardware is almost certain to get an upgrade this year and things should be interesting once more.
  • iPhone 5s: Ended up replacing my broken Lumia 720 with a gold 16 GB iPhone 5s after lots of debates. Bought it just before the 6\6+ launch when the prices were on the way down to reduce the cognitive dissonance a bit. The storage is definitely a limiting factor and the screen a tad small now that we have the larger iPhones, but everything else is just the way I wanted. My photo shooting has increased even more after the purchase, and so has my video taking. I’ve also finally got all the apps I use on my primary phone – Windows Phone was limited that way. TouchID is of course what it promises to be and has made me quite lazy. I suspect I’m now firmly in the iPhone camp with a finger in the Android camp.
  • Apple TV: Yet another Apple device for home. AirPlay is certainly handy to have for uses ranging from photo slideshows to showing off online videos. Plus the home sharing feature allows me to stream content from my laptop a lot more reliably (my TV could play some stuff, but not all formats). The Youtube channel also got a much needed overhaul towards the end of the year and I have finally started catching up on my Watch Later list.
  • Apple Airport Express: With the Apple TV came the limitations of my routers streaming capabilities. I’d faced it before when I’d tried to stream to the iPad, but the Apple TV just highlighted the problem even more. Did some research and zeroed in on the Airport Express instead of some ac capable router since I don’t have any device with ac yet. Things have been pretty smooth since then, though the range of the router is not that different from the TP Link ones.
  • Honourable mentions: I’ve still got my Altec Lansing ATP3 speakers purchased way back in 2007 as my primary speakers. The Senheisser HD 239 headphones purchased in 2013 saw a lot more use last year, though the SoundMagic earphones have been sparingly used. I also got a JBL bluetooth speaker that’s come in handy on many occasions. My Plantronics Voyager Pro HD bluetooth headset from 2012 is also going pretty strong and sees almost daily use.

2015 is probably too early for getting anything VR related, but I have a very strong suspicion that I’m going to end up with a wearable this year.

Nooks, books & helpdesks

I was going through Engadget’s review of the nook and it reminded me of a youtube video I had seen a few years back titled “Medieval help desk”. With so many e-book readers on the market today like the Kindle, nook & Sony Reader, we’re definitely seeing a paradigm shift in the way most of us consume books. The whole user experience is transforming, and I’m quite sure that we could easily upgrade this video spoofing the introduction of books to the introduction of e-book readers. No matter what happens, enjoy the video 🙂