The fantastic Amazon Echo has just recently arrived on UK shores and with this always-listening virtual assistant in our homes there’s plenty of cool automation and fun at our fingertips.
Setting up is easy enough, but there’s some other things to consider…
Connecting to Spotify
Out of the box the Amazon Echo can and will play music for you from either Tunein radio or Amazon Music, but if you have a premium Spotify account you can also connect that so you can listen to all your favourite playlists.
In the UK, we’ve had some reports of people unable to connect their Spotify account to the Echo because of a problem with authorisation (a blank page appearing on the authorisation URL https://layla.amazon.com/spa/partner/authorization-result.html). The good news is there’s a solution to this problem as you can also access Alexa’s settings (and therefore authorise Spotify) via the web on a desktop or laptop via https://alexa.amazon.co.uk/spa/index.html. We found this fixed the issue for us.
Alexa and automation
Echo is pretty smart and if you’ve already got smart devices installed in your home then there’s plenty of functionality here. You can also do a lot more with your Echo by combining it with IFTTT this includes things like getting reminders on your phone when a new task is added to your to-do list, get an email notification when an item is added to your shopping list (handy if you’re out and a family member is adding things to the shopping list at home) and much more. With IFTTT you can also get your Echo to work with smart devices in the house which don’t currently have direct compatibility, like the Harmony Hub for example.
Find out what other services are compatible with Alexa over on Pocket-lint.
Affordable price tag, free and secure cloud storage, snippet/recording sharing, wide angle viewing, two-way audio
Poor quality footage at a distance, only 24 hour max playback
The Circle camera from Logitech is one of their recent additions to a selection of smarthome products that can be scattered around your house to improve and enhance your life with the addition of internet connectivity.
The Circle isn’t a security camera in the traditional sense – you’re not going to install one of these cameras outside your home and record footage in the hope of catching an intruder at some point in the future. No, the idea of these smart connected cameras is to give you a view of your home while you’re not there. This might include alerts if there’s a break in, but it could just be for something as simple as watching your kids playing happily in the sitting room while you’re stuck at work beavering away on your latest project or remotely keeping an eye on that new puppy you bought last week to make sure he’s not destroying your furniture while you’re out of the house.
Much more than just a webcam
There’s plenty of competition out there including the likes of Nest Cam, Netgear’s Arlo and Withings Home, so what makes the Circle stand out?
Well, unlike some of the competition, the Circle offers free live-streaming (in 1080p) and 24 hour playback of the footage it’s recorded. There’s no requirement for local storage space as all the footage is stored securely in the cloud too, so you don’t have to worry about backing up or deleting old recordings. Depending on what you’re planning to do, this could be a good or bad thing, but in our view it makes it easy to manage and that’s exactly what you need from any smart device.
Circle allows you to stream footage directly to your phone via their free app (whether Android or iPhone) but also alerts you to detected movement (great if you’re out of the house but are slightly paranoid about being burgled), has two-way communication via a built-in speaker and mic which allows you to communicate with people or animals in the room from a distance and includes other nifty features like night vision mode.
Beyond the obvious, highlights for us include the ability to export and share clips with friends and family via email, social media or other app of your choosing and the rather swish ‘Day Brief’ feature which allows you to compress an entire day into a 30 second time lapse video.
Portable, practical and precise?
The Circle comes boxed with a charging station which essentially makes it wireless (though it can also be mounted if you so wish) meaning you can theoretically move it around the house as you see fit. Logitech claim it has a 12 hour battery life, so as long as you remember to dock it at some point throughout the day you should be able to get some good use out of it. With the various features we’ve mentioned you could easily use it as a baby monitor during the night and a security camera during the day – or any other application around the house you can think of.
Boasting a 135-degree angle lens, the Circle is able to see far more of the room than you’d expect and the quality of the footage is pretty good, day or night. There’s also an 8x digital zoom but you’ll soon find the quality degrading if you zoom in too far. Realistically, in a reasonably sized room you’ll be able to see most of the features of the room, but you won’t be zooming in to see a pin dropped on the floor or study the pores on a burglars nose.
At the end of the day, the Logitech Circle is a worthy entry to the market and should certainly be on your radar if you’re looking to add an affordable smartcamera to your home. With a relatively low price point for what you’re getting, it’s worth mentioning as a side note that you can add and connect multiple cameras, so you could setup monitoring for other rooms in your home too without breaking the bank.
The Logi Circle is currently available for around £119 on Amazon.
Quidco is great. Cashback is great. The concept is simple and if you’re not using it, you’re missing out on what is essentially ‘free’ money. Yes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch in this world, but if you’re spending money, why not make some money as well?
The concept of Quidco is simple enough, you sign-up, search for a retailer and click to ‘visit’ the site for cashback. I suppose the premise is you’ll use retailers you might never have done before (or competitors of ones you would use) simply because you’re going to make more money in cashback. Balance that with a bit of price comparison and you might not only save money but make some back too.
I only discovered the magic of cashback a year or so ago. I wish I’d discovered it sooner. It’s great for saving money for Christmas presents or treating yourself. Plus if you’re buying gifts for other people you still feel like you’re getting something out of it too.
Getting Even More Cashback
The one problem I have with Quidco is I often forget to check to see if a site has cashback, unless it’s somewhere I regularly shop (like My Protein). Then I discovered their Cashback Reminder Extension for Google Chrome.
The idea of this is just as simple as the premise of the cashback itself. When you’re browsing/shopping/surfing you’ll get a pop-up to let you know when the site has cashback available. This is great not only as a reminder, but also to discover sites you didn’t even know did cashback to rake those rewards in.
Pretty simple right? And yet another free way to support your cashback earnings.
But wait, there’s more…
Just when you thought things couldn’t get any better there’s even more. The Quidco App includes some functionality to improve your cashback opportunities even further. You can get notified of local deals – but my favourite thing is the ability to ‘register’ your credit/debit cards to your account. That means that when you visit a traditional brick-and-mortar store and make a purchase you might well be earning more cashback (that of course does depend on whether they’re in the program, but you get the idea).
If that’s not enough…
If that’s not enough money for you, there’s also Quidco Opinions – free surveys you can participate in that give you extra cash in your account. They’re pretty straightforward and similar to the likes of Valued Opinions, but it’s worth spending the time on them.
On an unrelated note, if you’re looking to save money as well as earn cashback then install invisible hand. This is a browser extension/plugin which notifies of cheaper prices elsewhere. So if you’re shopping for a particular product then you’ll get a pop-up to tell you you could save £££ by shopping elsewhere.
Last year I realised I was fat. Shockingly fat. I hadn’t noticed until I saw photos of my son and I on the beach. I was uncomfortable with how chubby I’d become, so I decided to do something about it. I cut out carbs and started working out 5 days a week with weights, kettlebells and other stuff. This was around the time I got my Moto 360. Reading up on cardio and weight loss I knew that I needed to get my heart rate up sufficiently. I didn’t want to wear my watch while I was working out, but I wanted to track how I was doing. At that time there weren’t any decent smart wearables around that tracked your heart rate but were also robust enough to handle being sweated on or potentially knocked with weights. I didn’t want to break it and honestly, the Moto 360 is great, but it’s not that great at tracking your heart rate.
The Best Smart Fitness Tracker Around?
Just recently I decided I wanted to look again. So I did my research and saw that the Fitbit Charge HR was topping a lot of reviews as the favourite choice for fitness trackers. Especially if you were looking for one that didn’t break the bank but was capable of tracking heart rate and doing it well. The specifications said it could track heart rate constantly – as in all day long and does so using a rather funky pair of flashing green lights on the back of the strap which when combined with a sensor detect your pulse by monitoring how the light comes back. Like a kind of sonar I guess.
This seemed like the ideal solution to my needs. I really only wanted something to track and monitor heart rate. I wasn’t interested in knowing how many steps I’d taken during the day or any of that other guff. Most of my exercise is static and involves standing still while throwing weights about, so knowing how far I’d walked was pretty pointless. I also wanted something with a small screen on it (if any at all). The Fitbit Charge HR fit that bill perfectly as the Surge (the posher version) has a bigger screen and thus would be more at risk from damage.
So how’s the heart rate monitoring? Pretty good.
Fitness Data & Health Tracking Information
The data you can get is pretty cool. It comes in the form of the Fitbit Dashboard which is available in a browser, but also within the official Fitbit App.
Seeing the calories ‘in’ and ‘out’ leads to some quite interesting (and perhaps inspiring reading).
The workout tracking also shows how successful your endeavors have been in terms of getting your heart rate up, burning calories and how your workout session compared with the day generally.
All interesting data, and yes, I ended up getting wrapped up in the other stuff too. The little things like pressing the button on the side of the Charge HR to track workout sessions. Other highlights for me have been:
- Tracking sleep patterns – it seems that sleep is monitored from when you stop moving and stay still for long periods. There’s then highlights on things like whether your sleep was disturbed in terms of restlessness or being awake. I’m a pretty good sleeper. I tend to fall asleep straight away and generally sleep through. At least that’s what I thought! The Fitbit has shown that my sleep patterns are far more disturbed than I thought – especially lately with my son waking up in the night. But I’m also getting an hour or so less sleep a night than I thought I was because of the disturbances. I do wonder how accurate it is (and you’ll see why in a second when I talk about step counting). It didn’t track when I fell asleep on the sofa one lazy Sunday afternoon. You’d think heart rate and movement would be combined to track sleep – after all your heart rate drops during rest. I’ve seen spikes in it when I was woken by my son screaming, so it must be straight-forward enough to tie these two things together?
- Tracking food intake – I’m lazy, I generally can’t be bothered with dieting. I realise this makes no sense after telling you that I’ve been exercising for over a year, but all that tracking your exact food intake stuff seemed like a bit too much effort. I loved my food, it was bad enough giving up carbs. But now I’ve got the ability to track when I’m eating (and what I’m burning) all in the same place I’ve started to do it and like it. It’s easy to do (on desktop and in the app) and the database seems to include anything and everything. I was really surprised to see various Aldi products in there (for example).
- Tracking water consumption – you can read online about how much water you should be taking in during the day. It’s a lot generally. Something like 8 pints. I knew I was drinking a lot at work but I didn’t realise how much. I started tracking by clicking the relevant buttons in the dashboard every time I drunk a pint and one day I’d drunk 4 litres. Suddenly I was overly conscious that I wasn’t drinking nearly enough water at the weekends. Upsides and downsides!
- The little things – for the most part, the other things I enjoy are the little things. Like the way it tells me it loves me whenever I’ve finished charging it. Or the information on my lowest and highest heart rates or my general resting heart rate. I can see the potential too – tracking your heart rate all day long means you could potentially use this sort of tech to monitor for health problems.
Having said all that, there are issues. Step counting is not accurate. It’s measured on wrist movement. So any aggressive wrist movement – shaking hands, tossing a ball in the air, throwing kettlebells around – will be seen as steps. I’ve watched it happen. I don’t really understand why on a device this clever such a thing is so basic. I mean the thing is attached to my phone via Bluetooth, surely it could use GPS location data to work out whether you’re actually moving and then negate step counting if you were sitting on the sofa waving your wrist around (as I was when I was testing it out).
There’s also a monitor for how many floors of stairs you’ve climbed. Pretty sure that’s wrong too. I’ve often apparently walked up several flights of stairs when I work on the ground floor and haven’t been upstairs at home much.
Last night I went to bed at 11pm and woke up at 6.30am, but according to Fitbit I only slept for 3 hours 45 mins. I’m pretty sure that’s not right. Mind you, that’s the first night it’s been massively out since I owned it.
Other things too. Like the fact it’s not waterproof – so you can’t wear it in the shower. It’s very comfortable and sometimes I forget I’m wearing it, it’s that light and well fitting. There’s a serious danger I’m going to ruin it one day when I plunge my hand into a washing up bowl.
A quick list of the good and bad points:
- Comfortable – fits nicely, doesn’t take up too much space on your wrist and doesn’t way much
- Constant heart rate tracking
- Doubles as a watch
- Great for extra things like tracking food/water intake, sleep patterns and more
- Reasonably priced
- Step tracking is not accurate
- It’s not waterproof
- Charge does not last 5 days as they claim (though it’s not far off)
- Charging cable is proprietary – it’s not micro USB and costs £16 to replace
- There’s no easy option for just having a widget on your phone and click to say ‘I’ve drunk a pint of water’ – you have to go right into the interface and carry out several clicks to achieve this
- It’s so comfortable I forget I’m wearing it, which means when I do take it off (for a shower or washing up) I often forget to put it back on, which annoys me when I’ve lost out on data
It might sound like I’m not happy with my purchase, but it’s excellent really. I find it motivating, curious and intriguing. I’m experimenting with other things too, wondering how I could use Tasker to log my water intake and there are several IFTTT Receipes you can use to do things like logging sleep patterns into Google Spreadsheets
I must admit I also enjoy the various emails from Fitbit. It emails you to tell you when the charge is low, which is a good pre-warning – it’s not like ‘warning, low battery!’ then it’s flat either. you’ll have a few hours. Then there’s the weekly summaries:
A nice email in your inbox to let you know how you’ve got on. Pretty cool. If you’re that way inclined (which I’m not) you could compare your success with friends or boast about your progress on social media. That’s not what I want mine for, but it shows how flexible the device is.
Good news for anyone that’s bought a Chromecast recently, Google’s got a special offer on. Set up your Chromecast and visit chromecast.com/offers by 31 January 2015 and you can get £15 of Google Play credit! Not bad eh? If you were lucky enough to get a Chromecast in a recent Amazon sale you’ll have got it for £18, so essentially have paid £3 for it with free films/music! Nice.
If you weren’t that lucky, don’t worry, there’s still offers on. I checked my (older) Chromecast yesterday and had 3 months of free Now TV, 90 days of Google Play Music Unlimited and the original X-Men film to download and keep! Nice.
To check it out simply logon to your home PC or laptop in your wifi connection (the same one as the Chromecast), download the Chromecast extension and follow this link https://cast.google.com/chromecast/offers/