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Test Driving MyFord Touch

Mari Silbey —  December 6, 2010

Let me preface this post by saying I’ve never been big into cars. Give me something that’s reliable, preferably with a stick shift, and I’m good to go. However, the advent of GPS, mobile broadband, and digital radio systems have had an effect. I may never care a great deal about horsepower, but I am now paying closer attention to add-on car tech features.

Last month, I indulged in a demo “ride” with the MyFord Touch system at a New York Pepcom event. The system was introduced at CES last January, but Ford only started shipping product with the 2011 models of the Ford Edge, and the Ford Lincoln MKX. The demo is stunning. Three beautiful displays grace the dashboard, two on each side of the speedometer in front of the steering wheel, and one larger one in between the driver and passenger seats. There are four main functions supported: entertainment, navigation, phone, and climate. The functions are color-coded for easy identification, and accessible via the touch screens or by voice command.

In case you’re wondering, yes, the screens look like they could be quite distracting while driving, but as Consumer Reports pointed out, the ability to control functions just by talking to your car could mitigate the problem. In the test I saw, a voice command to find nearby shoe stores did bring up a good list of options, though the response time was a little slow. I have to admit I’m also not convinced that voice control solves everything given how temptingly attractive the screens are, but since most people are already playing with smartphones and GPS units, I supposed this isn’t any different.

The big plus in my mind with the MyFord Touch is the ability to plug in a USB mobile broadband stick and create a traveling Wi-Fi hotspot. If you’re already paying for mobile broadband, why not give the wireless benefit to everyone in the car? Not to mention all your own connected devices? Sure, you could buy your own mobile hotspot device, but MyFord Touch bundles it in, and it’s a great option for anyone who spends a lot of time in the car with Wi-Fi-hungry family, friends, or colleagues.

I’m not buying a new car any time soon, but when I do get around to it again, I hope there are more connected cars available. The number of gadgets piling up in my front seat – music player, GPS, smartphone – is starting to get a little unwieldy.

I’m heading overseas for a short getaway, giving thanks to airline deregulation and inexpensive Skype calling from abroad. When traveling Internationally, and/or for vacation, I prefer to go laptopless. However, I found a decent-enough Incase tote ($60) to house my new MacBook Air and replace my colorful-yet-ratty old bag with no-longer-functional zipper. So it’s coming along on this trip to protect my Kindle and a variety of paper magazines, courtesy of a small amount of soon-to-expire frequent flier miles.

Also, I made the very difficult decision to return the new Canon S95 (~$370). I totally waffled on this purchase, feeling both guilt and regret. The Canon’s still picture capabilities are unmatched in a cam this small. But after shooting the quickie Hulu Veebeam video, I had to let it go. I was aware that you couldn’t zoom in/out while filming. However, the S95 will not adjust focus at all as you shoot. Meaning that initial focal length remains even as you attempt to capture objects or people at different distances.

So I raced to the Sony store Sunday night (thank you, holiday hours) and picked up the WX5 (~$270). It doesn’t have the ability to natively handle complex or low lighting situations like the Canon, but through trial, error, and trickery decent shots can be obtained. This Apple TV one is a good example. The Sony also has the benefit of being slimmer than the Canon, with a 5x zoom lens, and ability to shoot (with continual focus) 1080p video. And, unlike previous Sony gear, this camera accepts SD cards (!) in addition to the more limited Memory Stick. Hopefully the S95 will see a firmware update and I’ll return to the fold, as it’s truly a special piece of hardware. But I’m unwilling to travel with both a still and video camera. Continue Reading…

Like so many products we cover these days, the new Veebeam ($100 – $130) attempts to facilitate the piping of web video and local media to our televisions. However, unlike Intel’s Wireless Display (WiDi) technology, Veebeam is mostly agnostic – in terms of both hardware and operating system.

The Veebeam solution consists of two components: a small USB stick that wirelessly transmits AV from a computer to a larger receiver/set-top that you connect (preferably over HDMI) to your television. The model I looked at handles digital audio and 1080p content. However, you’ll want to review hardware specs carefully… two Core 2 Duo laptops I tested on provided slightly different experiences. A 2.0Ghz model with 3GB of memory produced some dropped frames/stuttering when running Flash content fullscreen, while a 2.4Ghz model with 4GB of memory ran pretty darn smooth all things considered – as you can see in my video above. (The computers also house different graphics cards, but I don’t have that info handy at the moment.)

Setup and operation is mostly a straight forward affair… Load up the Windows or OS X software and the Veebeam service runs. Pop-in the USB stick that automagically links to the Veebeam receiver. Once everything’s up and running, inserting the USB stick triggers laptop audio and video to be intercepted and passed along to the Veebeam receiver in what’s referred to as screencasting mode. Audio is also kindly muted on the host machine. Additionally, Veebeam can natively pipe select video files (think rips or home movies) straight to the television without any chrome in the video play-to mode – leaving your laptop free for additional tasks. The Veebeam receiver houses the USB antenna when not in use, and inserting it puts Veebeam into standby.

Like WiDi and similar solutions of this nature, Veebeam is partially hobbled in not providing a remote control. Then again, their assumption is that your computer is the remote. And, given the capabilities of their wireless technology (WUSB), they expect us to keep a laptop in the same room. During screencasting I couldn’t simply force the video to stretch or match the television’s resolution, resulting in black bars – perhaps a minor annoyance and something that I imagine could be better handled through a software update. Also, be aware, the OS X streaming software isn’t quite as reliable as Veebeam’s Windows variants at the moment. So if you run a purely Mac household, I might suggest holding off on a purchase for the time being.

Click to enlarge:

The Kill A Watt is a green-geek favorite, but it’s also one of the few gadgets over the years to make it off the stumbling block in home energy management. Despite general support for greener living, the consumer market for energy management tools hasn’t taken off. High costs and difficulties in accessing utility data have been two of the gating factors, and perhaps a lack of cool gadgets has contributed as well. However, several things suggest that the environment (pun intended) may be about to change.

The success of smartphones and the app paradigm means it’s easy to give consumers a taste of home energy management without requiring a big financial commitment. A company called Qreative Medias just launched a Home Energy Performance app for the iPhone and iPad that’s designed to help you rate your home’s energy efficiency and decide where to make improvements. It calculates a score for your home based on the Energy Performance Certificate program out of the UK. Or for those of us Stateside, provides a rating between A and G. The Qreative app is far from the only app available too. Visible Energy and Control4 have introduced their own offerings for energy-conscious consumers that include actual monitoring of your energy usage.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has thrown its weight behind a web-based energy management tool called Hohm. It existed only as software when Microsoft first launched Hohm, but last month the company teamed up with Blue Line Innovations to pair the software with (relatively) low-cost hardware. Now you can buy a Hohm-compatible PowerCost Monitor and Wi-Fi kit for $249. And, Microsoft has opened up the software to other third-party developers as well, with the expectation that other Hohm-compatible gadgets will be available soon.

Google is another big name is this emerging market. The search-engine giant introduced its free PowerMeter software in 2009 for use with smart meters deployed by your utility company. Of course, if your power company didn’t use smart meters, the Google solution was a non-starter, at least until Google paired it with the TED 5000 gadget from Energy Inc. Now, like with the Microsoft offering, you can buy cheap’ish energy management hardware ($200-$300 for the TED 5000), and access your usage data online.

Between smartphone and iPad apps, and big players like Microsoft and Google getting into the game with user-friendly solutions, the energy management market may finally be ready for mainstream America. Or at least for the techie population.

I am a big fan of the Eye-Fi card, and have had my 2GB SD version (i.e. photos, no video) for two and a half years. However, I rarely if ever used the old Eye-Fi Manager software, and over the last few months I’ve been without Eye-Fi wireless transfers altogether thanks to a PC migration, and general laziness on my part. Then last week I got a notice from the company that they’re discontinuing the old Eye-Fi Manager, and replacing it with new Eye-Fi Center software. The shift finally prompted me to set up Eye-Fi on the new computer and give the updated management portal a try.

The Eye-Fi Center has a clean, simple interface showing thumbnails of recently uploaded photos at the top, a list of connected devices along with a calendar to the left, a photo tray for sharing pics at the bottom, and a big preview screen taking up most of the display. There’s also a settings menu available with tabs for network selection, photo storage options, notifications, geotagging, and photo transfer preferences.

Stuff I Like: Continue Reading…


As Kindle 3 details trickled out last night, what most interested me was not the refreshed e-reader, but Amazon’s new Kindle cover with integrated light.

The “Kindle Lighted Leather Cover” is similar in appearance to previous Amazon covers, but obviously the retractable LED lighting sets it apart. Unlike every other light accessory currently on the market, that either unbalances the unit with regular batteries or requires the additional expense of those watch-type batteries when the juice runs out, Amazon’s light draws power directly from the Kindle itself – across the gold plated hinge points. Clever!

The new $60 cover is available in 7 colors and can be pre-ordered now. It’s expected to arrive August 27th, along with the refreshed 6″ Kindle hardware.


I doubt we’ll ever see a single, universal cable or connector to power each and every single mobile gadget… However, given the various devices that pass through my home and auto, it appears like we’ve settled on a solid trio of options.

Of course, there’s the iEcosystem’s dock connector. Yeah, it’s mostly proprietary. But given the vast number of iPods, iPhones, and iPads in circulation, it’s essentially the standard for many. Mini USB seems to be broadly deployed as well. Although, it’s clearly losing ground to the slimmer Micro USB connector. In fact, that revelation is what inspired this post. Just about every non-iDevice I’ve come across in recent months sports Micro USB. See my Blackberry Tour, Droid X (loaner), and Kindle above, for example.

Even though the industry hasn’t settled on a single, common connection, the majority of cables fortunately terminate with a standard USB connector for charging and/or syncing purposes. Making the nearly flush Belkin USB auto charger below a handy universal adapter. I picked up a pair last fall for our vehicles, and they’ve served us (and our gadgets) well. The ultimate home solution is probably a small, powered USB hub and some short cables from Monoprice. Unless, there’s an attractive charging station that already meets this need. Bueller?



Earlier this month when Netgear announced new ReadyNAS products ($900 – $1350) that incorporate TiVo functionality, I reached out to the companies for more info. And, without having seen the feature in action, it sounds pretty much like what we’d expect… Sort of a TiVo Desktop port allowing you to offload shows to the NAS for storage and to later retrieve them from a network folder found within the TiVo UI.

Netgear also informed me they’re the first TiVo-compatible DVR network storage solution to alleviate local capacity concerns, so I asked TiVo about HP’s earlier TiVo MediaSmart implementation (recently updated, thanks Alex). Apparently, HP’s solution ($550 – $700) is also legit but the company didn’t go through the evaluation process that would allow them to be labeled “TiVo Compatible.” Whatev?

Both Netgear and HP solutions are nice additions if you happen to be in the market for a NAS, but I’m not sure TiVo integration is compelling enough to sell the device on its own. Then again, as a digital cable subscriber treated like a content thief by Cox Communications, I can’t offload anything but recordings of local network programming (and one premium they missed). Making me a less than ideal candidate.