Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Evaluating purchases

I like gadgets.  My grandfather did, too.  Of course, in his time, there were a lot fewer shiny gadgets to play with, and virtually no electronic ones; but he did have the first answering machine I ever saw.  I try to justify my gadget purchases with the idea that they will make my life easier, but I know a lot of the time that isn't the case.  Many times they just cause frustration.  But you never know if you don't try, and I love the trying part, so I don't mind experimenting with new things even if I know many of them will not work out as expected.  Every so often, though, I like to stop and think about the things I have bought and ask myself whether they lived up to expectations and whether they were worth the money.  Since other people may also be interesting in knowing how gadgets worked for me, and may perhaps learn from my mistakes and my successes, I thought I would post some of the results for everyone to see.

(I don't have any affiliate relationships, so I get no money if anyone buys these things.  I am using stock pictures unless I can't find one.)

Tablet and keyboard:  I haven't had a laptop in years.  When I was thinking about getting one last year, I thought about getting a tablet instead, with the idea that the tablet would be cheaper, a little more portable, and wouldn't have to worry about booting up.  On the downside, I knew I would be giving up a certain amount of speed and screensize, as well as a keyboard.  The keyboard is the only one I can't live without, because I wanted to use the tablet for writing, but you can get a keyboard for it.  My first choice was just to get a normal USB keyboard, slightly smaller than a desktop size (LuxeMate i200).  It only costs $10 and it should work directly with the micro-USB board as long as I have an adapter.  Well, that was a huge disappointment.  First, the tablet was auto-correcting things in the most annoying fashion.  I discovered a little program that detects when you plug in an external device and asks which input method you want to use.  That was a great improvement, but I kept having problems with the keyboard not being recognized.  I don't know if it was a problem with the USB port or perhaps a software problem.  I tried a different keyboard in the tablet and got the same results, so I don't think it was the keyboard.  Perhaps it was the adapter.

In any case, at that point I gave in and bought a case with an integrated keyboard.  I had thought that might be the eventual solution, but I was hoping to avoid it.  The case I bought, like almost every case, uses bluetooth for connectivity, which seems like a waste but I accepted it after my experience with a USB keyboard.  That setup works really smoothly.  I only turn on the keyboard when I need it, which is not usually; the program asks me what input I want to use, I touch external keyboard, and I'm ready to go.  (Actually, the keyboard works without explicitly selecting the external keyboard, but I think it prevents the soft keyboard from popping up every time I am on an input field.)  I think the keyboard is a little smaller than standard, but I have no problem touch-typing on it.  Android allows me to use alt-tab and other shortcuts that I am accustomed to on the desktop.  When opened to the keyboard, the tablet sits in a slot on the case and appears to be held in magnetically, so it is easy to type in my lap.  My only complaints are the ones I would have expected:  it's heavier than without the keyboard, and a little awkward when I open the case fully and have a keyboard on the back of the tablet.  I don't know how they would avoid those problems.  I do with the case came with a vertical kickstand, especially since some programs insist on being oriented vertically.  I can actually take the horizontal kickstand and turn it vertically and it stands up pretty well, so this isn't too much of an issue.

Tablet holder:  I saw this little "Clamp Champion" holder and all my reasoning went out the window.  It just looks so useful and neat.  I have to admit that it does work in the ways it is supposed to, it's just that I don't usually need a holder for how I use it, so this has not gotten much use.


Stereo with bluetooth: I have been experimenting with bluetooth for years now, but this is the first time I have relied on it.  Around the same time, I bought a new stereo for one of our cars, and it had bluetooth capability.  I always get the cheapest one that I can from Crutchfield that comes with the free adapter kit, and they keep getting better over the years.  I got one a few years ago with an audio jack; the next one had a USB port; and this one (a Kenwood KDC-BT362U) has bluetooth.  I didn't know how much I would use the bluetooth, but it has turned out to be one of the best purchases I have made.  I have been listening to audio books for decades now.  I have used cassette players, CD players, DVD players, USB drives, a cassette adapter with an audio cable attached, and a small device that "broadcasts" to a radio frequency that you can then tune into and listen.  (I thought that last one was particularly clever.)  My biggest problem in recent years is that I want to listen on my phone.  I can carry around a USB drive or an mp3 player, but if I leave it in the vehicle, I don't have it when I'm in another vehicle or if I want to listen to it in the house.  I have been able to use my phone through an audio jack for years, but that means every time I get in the car I have to plug in the jack, open the phone and unlock it, find the audio program, and click play.  When I get out, I have to reverse the process; and if I want to pause while driving, I usually have to unlock the phone to get to the pause button, which is not safe.  As a result, I rarely used the phone to listen to audio books.

Bluetooth has completely changed that.  Now when I get in the car, the phone connects to the stereo almost immediately.  All I have to do is press "play" on the stereo and the book resumes from where I was.  I can pause, fast forward, or rewind at any time.  The only hitch was getting the phone to open the right audio app when it connected.  It wants to open the system default media player, but I found a little program that allows me to choose.

This stereo is not very remarkable in itself.  It is the fourth I have put in a vehicle, so I'm pretty familiar with the process now, but this is the first one I had to go in the back to work on.  Apparently the external amplifier that came in our 1993 BMW did not deal well with this new radio, so I had to take it out and attach the input and output cables to a pass-through device.  I had always wanted to get to the back wiring, so it was an interesting experience.  Not very technically challenging, but it took some thinking to figure out how to get to the amplifier.  To remove it, I had to remove one of the rear speakers, which is also attached in an interesting way.  I actually had to buy more speakers just to get the pass-through device for the cables, but I haven't installed them besides one in the back because the trim is so flimsy on the car's doors that I am scared to take them off.  That is the last thing missing from my stereo installation experience.

The one problem I've had with the bluetooth stereo relates to using the phone.  Even if the stereo's input is not set to bluetooth, it still picks up phone calls and directs audio to itself.  (I could probably turn this feature off if I looked...)   The problem is that the microphone that came with the stereo broke when I was installing it, so I can hear incoming calls fine, but no one can hear me.  I'm still not sure how I was supposed to get the audio cable through the opening -- maybe I wasn't -- but this is an annoyance until I figure out a solution.

Bluetooth headset: I have had a bluetooth headset for years, but I never use it.  In part, I just didn't want to have my phone's bluetooth on constantly because it runs out of power so fast, although this is less of an issue with my latest phone.  The other part is that I just can't hear very well with a plug in one ear, especially since I mainly want to use it to listen to audio books, in which case I have to understand the words.  A few years ago I got a headset that supports the bluetooth stereo protocol so I could listen to it in both ears.  This works fine, but by the time you attach the receiver and put the earbuds in, it doesn't feel like you're saving much trouble over just plugging a traditional set of headphones or earbuds into the phone's audio jack.  I keep wanting to use this more, but I doubt I will.

Bluetooth computer adapter: I also got a little bluetooth adapter for my computer (Asus USB-BT211).  It plus in to a USB port and hardly sticks out at all.  I don't have much use for it, but it was inexpensive.  I have found it easier to use bluetooth for file transfer to or from my phone depending on how my devices are behaving on a given day.

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