Review: The Misfit Shine Activity Tracker

In my last post, I talked about how I returned a Pebble Smartwatch because of its deficiencies as an “always-on” fitness tracking device (otherwise, it performed as promised).  I had my eye on the Fitbit Force — and was just about to purchase one — when I saw a friend tweet this:

That was enough to give me pause.  I considered switching to the UP 24 by Jawbone, which retails for around $150, but then I saw the Misfit Shine was on sale for only $80.  The price was right, so I figured I’d try it out.

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The first thing you notice once you open the package is how striking it is — like a flying saucer from Planet Gucci.  The Shine is available in a variety of colors – Jet Black, Grey, Topaz, and Champagne.  It comes with a magnetic clasp that allows you to clip it to your clothing, but there are also optional watchbands and even a necklace accessory.  Misfit seems to think you won’t mind wearing it visibly to dressy workplaces and/or fancy social gatherings and you know what? They may be right.

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This is the Shine in “clasping” mode.

The second thing that stood out to me about the Shine: It’s not rechargeable.  It comes with a conventional watch battery (i.e. the thin, round kind) that is supposed to power the device for at least 4 months before you have to replacement it. This is all part of the Shine’s “never take it off” ethos. Because it’s both waterproof and doesn’t need recharging, you’re supposed to sleep with it on, shower with it on, and according to the packaging “make sweet love” with it on. (Okay, I made that last part up, but you could.)

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There are twelve lights around the diameter of the Shine, each representing a step towards your daily activity goal (which is customizable, of course).  The lights can also be used to tell time, with a solid light indicating the hour and a flashing light indicating the nearest minute.  It’s not minute accurate, but that’s on par with most hyper-stylized watches (i.e. those without any numbers). Activating the lights to see either the time or your daily progress (or both) is as simple as tapping it twice.

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Initial set-up is ridiculously easy. It works via bluetooth, but you don’t even have to open the bluetooth settings on your phone.  The first time you open the app, a circle appears. You just place the Shine in the circle and tap. That’s it.  All bluetooth synchronizations should be this simple.

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Whenever you open the app, the first thing it’ll do is look for the Shine to sync up its data. The app can even sync up with the Shine on its own periodically throughout the day.

 The data itself is minimal, but still useful. The home screen shows you your daily progress:

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Swiping up reveals badges corresponding to daily milestones:

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And tapping on the badges reveals more detailed info about the activity in question:

IMG_0236I found the sleep tracking to be pretty accurate:

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There is no altimeter to measure elevation nor does it tie into the GPS info on your phone to track distance. But for $80 (+$20 for the watch band), I’m not complaining.  The idea behind the misfit is to measure your overall activity for the day. If you’re a hard core runner or biker and want something with more bells & whistles, this isn’t for you. This is for those of us who just need a little extra encouragement to be more active throughout the day.

Other things worth mentioning:

– It does have social networking features allowing you to compare your activity to others.

– It’s completely waterproof, even when swimming, something the FitBit Force lacks.

– It’s smaller than it appears on the box.  Just something to keep in mind if you think you might want to wear it as a watch. The guy on the package has pretty small wrists.

– It doesn’t claim to track steps, which I think is a good thing, since that’s nearly impossible to do accurately. It instead awards you points for movement. The more intense the movement, the more points awarded.

– If there’s a specific activity you do a lot — run, swim, play soccer, etc. — you can set it so that a “triple tap” lets it know that’s what your doing, and it’ll take that specific activity into consideration when gauging your movement.

– It’s so small, you can just stick it in your pocket and leave it there all day.  No need to use the included clasp (or buy a watchband) at all.

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If you like the idea of a fitness tracker you never have to take off, not even to recharge it, consider the Misfit Shine.  If you like funky time pieces, consider the Misfit Shine. If you like to swim, strongly consider the Misfit Shine.  And if those things describe you and you can find it on sale like I did… you should get it.

Products mentioned in this post:





24 Hours with the Pebble smartwatch

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Let’s cut to the chase. I didn’t intend to only spend a day with the Pebble. I wanted it to be my new everyday watch. I read glowing reviews of it at Verge and Engadget. I even read a not-so-glowing review at CNET, but it wasn’t enough to scare me off. I needed a new watch and with the brand new Pebble appstore going live last Monday, I figured now was as good a time as any to get one.

Also, I was eyeing a Fitbit Force as a fitness tracking device. They cost as much as a Pebble, and the Pebble is a full-fledged micro-computer, not just a sensor strapped to your wrist. The Pebble has a range of fitness apps it can run (which I’ll get to in a bit), so it seemed like a no-brainer purchase.

Note: the Pebble now comes in a fancier “steel” version that has a slimmer profile and a slicker overall appearance, but it costs $250 and the functionality is the same.

449A4648For those unfamiliar with the Pebble, it’s a watch with an e-ink display (the same as you’ll find on a Kindle, which means it uses very little power), a small processor, and various sensors. It’s designed to work as a companion to a smart phone (via an always-on Bluetooth connection which, yes, will drain your phone’s power a bit faster than usual). The Pebble should be able to go 5-7 days between charges, which is accomplished via a magnetic connector similar to those on Mac laptops.

The Pebble’s strength lies in its ability to relay any notification you can get on your phone — new text, email, incoming call, Twitter mention, upcoming appointment, sports score update, etc. — to your wrist.  The Pebble works with any app that can “push” a notification to your phone’s home screen. Some apps have even been optimized to work specifically with the Pebble, offering even greater flexibility and options. Whenever you get a new text, for example, your wrist will vibrate and the entire text will appear on your watch. Unless you want to respond immediately, no need to go digging around for your cell. Darren Murph over at BGR wrote extensively in his review about how the Pebble fundamentally changed the way he interacts with his phone and, to a lesser degree, other people.

During my time with the Pebble, I found the notifications worked as promised. The only problem?  I don’t get that many messages throughout the day, and I don’t particular like giving individual apps the power to notify me at will.  This isn’t a feature I’d been yearning for.  What I really wanted to try out was the appstore.

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The Pebble appstore is built into the official (and free) iOS app that’s needed to set-up the Pebble.  (The Android appstore is still in beta.) At launch on Monday, there was no shortage of apps to choose from.  Big names like Yelp and Fourquare were represented, in addition to hundreds of more independent offerings. Some Pebble apps require additional software on your iPhone, but those are clearly marked so there are no surprises.

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Do you like the idea of changing your watch face every five minutes? Great! There are literally hundreds available, completely for free, and I’m sure soon there will be thousands. My favorite was a rather basic watch face that showed the time, date, and current weather.

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In case you haven’t noticed, the screen isn’t in color. It’ll be some time before color e-ink displays are readily available for the masses.

They had an app that’ll control your Nest thermostat from your wrist, and it actually worked. They had another that claimed to control your Sonos sound system, but I couldn’t get it to work at all. (FYI: Neither were official offerings from Nest and Sonos, but, rather, from fans of those products.)

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Above you can see what the Pebble app manager looks like.  The Pebble only allows 8 apps/watch faces on your Pebble at one time, but you can download many, many more to your smart phone and keep them in a “locker” ’til you need them on your watch.

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I tried out two different kinds of fitness tracking apps.  One app was wholly contained on the watch, utilizing your Pebble’s accelerometer to track your movement (i.e. steps). The other syncs up with an app that runs on your iPhone, using the phone’s far more sensitive sensors.

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Moveable is a free iPhone app that sends fitness-related data to your Pebble.

I found neither method was all that reliable. The entirely self-contained Pebble app only works when that app is running on your watch (which makes sense, as the Pebble doesn’t seem to support background processes). Want a different watch face while you track your steps? Too bad. The other kind of Pebble fitness app — the kind that’s tethered to an iPhone app — doesn’t have that limitation. It’ll keep a constant tab of your movement regardless of what else is running on your watch because all the heavy lifting is done by the phone. The downside of this method: Since it relies on the sensors in your phone, you have to always have your phone on your body.  No phone in your pocket, no movement data will be collected.

I’m sure better fitness apps are yet to come, but I’m not convinced the Pebble will ever be able to replace a dedicated fitness band like the Fitbit or Jawbone Up.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I returned it. So what did I get?  That’ll be the subject of my next blog post.

Don’t get me wrong: The Pebble is an inventive, practical, reasonably priced device that offers a heap of functionality and versatility.  If the large, plastic-y, design of the 1st gen Pebble doesn’t launch your rocket, maybe the sleeker new Steel Pebble will.  If my needs were slightly different, I probably would’ve kept it.

The Apps I use: 2014 Edition

After my last post — a review of the app I use for podcasts — I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the other third party apps I use.  Here are some of the ones I’ve been using almost daily for a while now:

For reading/marking up PDFs: Goodreader

I bought the iPad 1 the day it came out on April 3, 2010. It was “pilot season” (my day job is a TV writer) which meant I’d be reading a lot of scripts, and the iPad — despite its initial limitations — looked like a great PDF reader. And it was. What it wasn’t: A great PDF editor.  It took several months before anyone came out with a user-friendly way to annotate a PDF on the iPad (i.e. make notes directly on the document, highlight sections, etc.).  When Goodreader first came out, I tried it and found that it offered excellent PDF management features, but it’s annotation features were a second-thought.  A competing app, iAnnotate, excelled where Goodreader didn’t, and it was my go-to PDF program for a while.  As of this writing, Goodreader and iAnnotate now offer nearly identical annotating experiences, with Goodreader still having the edge with it comes to file management, hence it’s become my current default.

For Twitter:  Tweetbot

Tweetbot won me over with a single feature that I couldn’t find anywhere else: the ability to “mute” specific tweeters and hashtags without having to actually unfollow anyone.  I really don’t like to unfollow people, but I also hate to see my Twitter timeline dominated too much by one person or topic.  If someone feels the need to do a marathon live tweeting session of the entire 3rd season of Game of Thrones (which I haven’t seen), I can either “mute” that one person for a set period of time or I can mute “#GameOfThronesMarathon” until it’s over.  I also like to use the mute button to punish people abusing the medium in other ways — like allowing bots to tweet from their account (I’m looking at you, people who let Foursquare auto-tweet for you). First offense gets you muted for 24 hours. Second offense for a week. Third offense for a month.

Note: Although Tweetbot 3 is out, I still use Tweetbot 2. Why? Because Tweetbot 3 was a paid upgrade and Tweetbot 2 still works great for my needs.

For news aggregation – Pulse and Zite

On my iPhone I mostly use Pulse and on my iPad I mostly use Zite.  Pulse went through some growing pains after LinkedIn bought the platform and did a major overhaul, but they’ve recently gotten a lot of the bugs out. I like how Pulse allows me to easily see the most recent headlines from the publications I read most. Zite, on the other hand, is designed to “guess” what you might want to read, regardless of source. You could, technically, use it to only check the publications regularly read, but that would be a waste of its algorithms.  How good is it at guessing what I want to read? At first, not great. But it gets better over time. Since I’ve been using it, I’ve been exposed to many cool sites & news outlets I never knew existed.

For a lot of things – Evernote

I currently work on a legal TV show, so I spend a lot of time surfing the web, looking for real-like legal stories that could be adapted to our show.  Whenever I’m on my Mac and see an article of interest, I use the Evernote webclipper (a browser plug-in) to send the content of said article to the Evernote app on my iPhone and iPad.  Easy-peasy.  I also use Evernote to organize all my notes and other content (photos, PDFs, etc.) for specific episodes I’m working on.  It’s a very powerful productivity program and I’m barely touching the surface of its usefulness.  If you work in a “project-based” environment, definitely give Evernote a try.

App Review: Pocket Casts for iPhone

Long-time readers of this blog (hi, mom!) know my affinity for podcasts.  I’ve offered advice to aspiring podcasters. I even returned my first Android phone largely because I didn’t like how that platform handled podcasts (in 2010).  So when Apple came out with their own dedicated Podcast app over a year ago, I was ecstatic.  Though version 1.0 was full of bugs, it offered one feature that made it worthwhile: A single playlist that automatically showed all my downloaded & unplayed podcasts, ordered from oldest to newest.  That’s all I really needed.

And then Apple updated their Podcast app.  The bugs largely went away… but so did the one function I actually used.

The new “unplayed” list now showed all the unplayed episodes of all the podcasts I subscribed to, whether they had been downloaded or not. Here’s the thing: If I haven’t downloaded a podcast episode, that means I don’t want to listen to it. (I have zero interest in streaming podcasts while I’m out and about.) I kept waiting for a revision that would restore the ability to automatically hide undownloaded episodes, but, alas, that day would never come.

After a year of manually managing my podcast library, I decided to finally break Tech Guy Rule #121: “Never pay for an app when a decent alternative is free.” I emptied my piggy bank and scrounged up enough coins to buy a new podcast app. But which one? Downcast, Instacast, Pocket Casts and iCatcher all had good write-ups on the web, as well as largely positive reviews on the app store.  They all cost less than five bucks.  They all bragged about their customizability.  But only one had this on its app store page:

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And that app was Pocket Casts, which I immediately bought.  Here’s what the app looks like once you get it up and running:

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Above is the app’s home screen, where you’ll find a bevy of filters and lists you can customize to organize your library.

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This is what the app looks like after you’ve subscribed to some podcasts.

Subscribing to podcasts is very easy. As soon as you hit the “+” in the upper right hand corner (from almost any page), you’re greeted with a page of Featured Podcasts.

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You can also see podcasts grouped by popularity, categories, and network.

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The Network view is very useful, though it’s far from complete. Earwolf and MaximumFun.org, for example, were both missing. (But their podcasts were easily found using the search tool.)

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Once you’ve subscribed to a podcast, you can see all available episodes.  You can then download only the ones you want to listen to. You can also set it to auto-download new episodes in the future, if you wish. Thanks to iOS 7, downloading is done in the background, and only on wifi if you don’t have an unlimited data plan.

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Some of the icons were unfamiliar to me. For example, I had no idea what that little checkmark meant until I clicked it. (FYI: It’s to toggle between “played” and “unplayed” status.)

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From the episode page, you can choose to start playing the episode immediately or add it to a playlist. There’s also a “PLAY NEXT” option I’ll go into detail more later.

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Viola. A list of just the episodes that are both unplayed and downloaded.

The app is not without its quirks.  For example, you can create a “filter” — like the one seen above — that will automatically sort your podcast library by whatever criteria you want, but it’s not the same as a playlist.  Selecting an episode in the “filter” list will only play that individual episode. It will not automatically go onto the next one in the filter.  You need to create a “playlist” to do that.  Adding episodes to a playlist is easy, but, still, it’d make more sense to just have filters and playlists be the same thing.  The reason I left the Apple Podcast app is because I didn’t want to have to manually add anything to a playlist, yet here I am, having to do just that.

But just when I was ready to give another podcast app a try (for another $3), Pocket Cast won me over.  The saving grace?  The “play next” button.  One of the reasons I hate playlists is this: Let’s say you see an episode you’d like to listen to after the current podcast you’re listening to is over.  So you add it to a playlist, where it appears at the bottom of the list, and then you have to manually move the episode up, in order to hear it next.

With the “play next” button, it’ll cut through all that.  Just hit that button and the app will automatically cue the selected podcast to start playing as soon as the current one is finished.  It’s a feature I never knew I wanted… and now it’s the main way I listen to podcasts.

Another cool thing about the app is the way it handles “chapters.”

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Only one podcast I listen to — Scriptnotes — uses chapter markers, but I imagine more and more podcasts will start to.

Another thing it handles quite well: Links to additional content.

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The app might not be quite what I expected (seriously, filters and playlists shouldn’t be two different things), but I’m not regretting the purchase. If the idea of super-customizable filters, a “play next” option, and an extremely user-friendly interface for finding & subscribing to new podcasts intrigues you, then I can easily recommend Pocket Casts.

Nothing’s Lost Forever: Data Recovery For When You Need It Most

A little over two months ago, my newborn daughter took her first breaths, and I was there with my new camera.  I documented her first day like Errol Morris on crack.  First bath? Check. First snuggle with mom? Check. First poop? Check. For two days, while we were all stored up at the hospital, I snapped away.  Then came time to take a look at what I got…

Nothing. The computer told me that the memory card was empty.

Back in the camera, though, the SD card showed all my photos and video were present.  So everything was there… it’s just that none of it was readable to the computer.  Curious, I put the memory card back into my Macbook Air’s SD slot.  I loaded up Disk Utility, Apple’s handy diagnostic/repair tool for storage devices.  Sure enough, Disk Utility found an error on the SD card.  I hit the “repair” button and, boom, the SD card was “fixed.”  No more errors.

But no more pictures either.

Whatever Disk Utility did to “fix” the memory card wound up making it appear empty to both the laptop and the camera now, too.  Oops.

“That’s okay, it’s just all the video and photo I took from the first two days of my daughter’s life, I’m sure I’ll have another chance to capture those same exact memories” is not what I said.  I was pissed.  Of all the pictures I’d ever take with this camera, those were the most unreproducible.

So I scoured the internet for an application that could retrieve deleted files.  This is where you have to be careful.  In all truthfulness, if you have good online habits, you can avoid viruses and spyware with 99% certainty without the need for any anti-virus software.  Downloading programs off the internet, though, is not a good online habit.  Malware, like vampires, typically can’t enter your computer unless it’s invited.  The most harmless (and seemingly useful) application could really be a nasty trojan horse.  You have to be careful to whom you open your door.

Even though I’m a tech guy, I’ve don’t have much data recovery experience. I’m such a devout believer in backing up, I’ve never really lost a file before. A Google search turned up a lot of programs, but I didn’t know which companies were trustworthy.  Before you download any software you intend to run on your computer, always look into the company.  Look for reviews from as many reputable sources that you can.

One of the programs I came across is called FileSalvage.  It claimed to be able to recover image and video file formats specific to my Canon camera, so it immediately rose to the top of the list of programs I wanted to try.  I then set out to find some reviews.  Various user forums had people both praising and complaining about the product — but the complaints were limited to people who didn’t think it worked for their needs or hated the speed/interface.  No one complained of malware.  And I even found a couple positive legit reviews of it.  It didn’t matter if the reviews were from several years ago — it’s actually a good sign if a program has been around for a while and is continually updated.

So I downloaded FileSalvage from their main website (always get it from the source) and installed it, fingers crossed.  The free demo mode is limited to just telling you it found a lot of files and not much more than that. You definitely can’t recover anything for free. But that’s par for the course with a lot of programs.  Just enough free functionality to peak your interest, and that’s it.

When you run data recovery programs on a storage device, the software will scan for anything it can find, even files you intentionally deleted a long time ago.  The free preview found A LOT of files on the SD card… but I had no way of knowing for sure whether it found my most recent pics and video.  At this point, though, I had nothing to lose besides $80, so I bought a user license and unlocked the “recovery features” of the program.

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FileSalvage can’t tell you anything about the files you’re recovering other than “file type” and “size.”  That’s all the info you get before you start recovering.  No metadata of any kind, not even original file names.  At this point, there’s a bit of wishing and hoping that that the files I wanted were among the thousand it found.  I went ahead and recovered all of them.

Note:  The way digital storage works, files are never truly deleted.  When you delete a file or do a routine format of a hard drive, the file structure is merely changed to allow new files to be rewritten over old ones.  The less you use a memory card (or hard drive, flash drive, etc), the more likely you can recover deleted missing files. (Because of this fact, it’s unwise to restore recovered files to the same drive you’re restoring from.)  If you’re ever giving away a computer and want all your old data as hard to recover as possible, do a specialized format that overwrites old data as it formats.

So what was the verdict on FileSalvage?  After going through all the recovered files, I got all the videos and pictures back that went missing.  Yay.  Well worth the $80 even if I never use this program again.

Review: Kamerar QV-1, a good LCD viewfinder at a great price

There are two kinds of camera accessories. Those that directly affect the quality of the images/audio you record and those that merely affect the experience of capturing it. Examples of the former: lens filters, specialty microphones, and light kits. Examples of the latter: carrying cases, external monitors, and focus assisting devices.

LCD viewfinders are in the second group. They’re accessories designed to help you see better what you’re shooting. They take the image from a camera’s LCD screen and funnel it into an eyepiece. They won’t change how light reaches the image sensor. They won’t give you the ability to record shots you wouldn’t otherwise be able to capture (for the most part). They just make shooting a better experience, particular in certain circumstances.

Those circumstances include shooting in sunlight, where an LCD can be hard to see. They are also beneficial with handheld shots, as your head can now provide additional stability to the camera. And regardless of where or how you’re shooting, LCDs on the back of cameras — which nowadays run about 3 inches in size — aren’t ideal when it comes to focusing. An image that looks in-focus at 3 inches could turn out blurry on a bigger screen. Eyepieces, which fill your field of vision with the image being captured, have a major edge in that area. So if you have a camera that doesn’t include an eyepiece, or it has one, but the eyepiece isn’t of much using when recording video (as is the case with most DSLRs), an LCD view finder can be a lifesaver.

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Like the Carry Speed VF-3 and VF-4 viewfinders, the Kamerar QV-1 is designed for hobbyists on a budget or a professional just getting started. The Kamerar bests both those models on price, though.

FYI: I didn’t even know this product existed until I saw it on Cheesycam.com. If you’re interested in buying this, you’ll want to check out their take on it, which gets more into detail on what specific camera models it works well with.

Like the Carry Speed viewfinders, the QV-1 mounts to the bottom of the camera via a special baseplate (that comes with it). To me, this is preferable to viewfinders that attach directly to the back of the camera (via glue or rubber bands or straps of some kind). The baseplate that comes with the QV-1 uses a magnet to hold the viewfinder in place. This is a nice touch. The magnet is strong enough that you never worry about the viewfinder coming loose when you don’t want it to, but it’s easy enough to remove when you don’t need it.

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Magnet out.

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Magnet in.

The included baseplate is compatible with some tripod heads right out of the box (those that work with Manfrotto 501PL-type plates). But if it’s not inherently compatible with yours, that’s not a huge deal, as it’s designed to be used in conjunction with whatever baseplate goes with your current tripod head. I don’t have the “right” kind of tripod head, but, as you can see below, it still works well with the QV-1.

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Now, I wear glasses. One concern I did have is whether or not it’ll have an adjustment to compensate for my poor eyesight, since most viewfinders don’t work well with glasses. There is a “diopter adjustment” that allows you to change the position of the “glass” (which is really plastic) inside the viewfinder ever-so-slightly. This can help compensate for people with poor eyesight. But it didn’t work for me. My eyesight was just out of the range the diopter could correct (which, to be honest, seemed to have a very limited range). Fortunately, this turned out NOT to be a deal breaker, since the generously sized eyepiece works well with my wire-framed glasses. I don’t have to remove my glasses to use it, which is great.

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The QV-1 also fits snuggly right up against the screen, with no light leakage, which I’ve heard is a problem with other view finders that mount from the bottom of the camera.

The QV-1 comes with an allen wrench used to tailor the location of the viewfinder to your particular camera. I’m only using this on a Canon 5D Mark III. The Mark III has a 3.2 inch screen, which, at the moment, is still an atypical screen size (3 inches is more common). But the QV-1 works well with it. It doesn’t seem to block any of the image, nor does it block any of the buttons on the back of the camera (or the battery door on the bottom of it). Again, if you’re interested in whether or not this will work with your camera, I’d check Cheesycam review and this web page from people who sell it.

The main selling point for me, though, was the upgraded kit which includes a rail system. This kit comes with QV-1 and the baseplate it attaches to AND with an additional base and two 8 inch long “rails.” The rails are 15mm in diameter, which is a standard dimension in DSLR gear circles. I look forward to using these rails to add a “follow focus” (which makes keeping focus easier when shooting video) and a matte box (to block excess light from leaking into the lens).

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The base that comes with the rail kit has a sliding quick release that’s a lot easier to use than the “not-so-quick release” that came standard on the tripod I already have (it’s technically a quick release, but the baseplate is square and a little finicky to lock into place… not very quick at all).

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The above photos show how QV-1’s baseplate slides into the “rail base.” By keeping the rail base on top of my tripod pretty much all-the-time, I’ve upgraded the tripod head substantially at a minimal cost (and definitely less than the cost of a new tripod).

The other thoughts on the product:

Build Quality — Lots of plastic. It definitely “feels” like a budget item. But there’s nothing flimsy about it. I would still describe the build as “solid” overall.

Instructions — There weren’t any. The kit only comes with a handful of items, each with it’s own clear purpose, but some documentation would’ve been nice. I can see some people who are really new to DSLR videography being a little unsure what does what.

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Features — In addition to the nice magnetic mechanism that allows the viewfinder to be easily removed when not needed, the eyepiece can also be “flipped up” so other people can see the LCD screen while still having some shade from the sun.

Strap — It does come with a strap, so you can keep it around your neck when not needed during shoots (since it’s way too big to fit in a pocket).

Competition — In this price range, you can get a “loupe” that more or less serves the same purpose as an LCD view finder. A loupe is a smaller magnifying device that is meant to be held over the LCD so you can get a better look at your footage. If you want an accessory that’ll aid in handheld shooting, though, a loupe won’t cut it. You need a viewfinder that mounts onto the camera.

CONCLUSION

I’ll definitely be keeping the Kamerar QV-1 LCD view finder (which I purchased with my own money, like all the products I review). The kit that includes both the view finder and the rail system is less than $150 as of this writing. Products in the same ballpark as the QV-1 could be had for that price alone, without the rails. Will the product hold up over time as well as some more expensive models? That remains to be seen.  I’ve only had it for a couple days.  If you’re on a budget and want both a viewfinder and rails, consider this. If you just want a view finder, even better, especially if you can get the $65 price.  Is this an “essential” accessory, though? Not really. If you’re not shooting a lot of video — particularly handheld video — you might not really benefit from it. If you wear thick glasses, you may have issues. And if you just need something to shade your LCD from the sun, there are cheaper ways to do that. But if you’re a videographer looking to experiment with more complex set-ups, this appears to be a great first step.

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Review: Motorola MBP36 Baby Monitor

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Consider this the first post in a new category I’ll call “Tech Dad Eric” for now.

With my wife due to deliver any day now, it was time to get the one piece of parenting equipment I had been putting off — a baby monitor system with both audio and video.  They come in two varieties:

  1. Monitors that use technology similar to a cordless phone (but with video) to connect to the camera.
  2. Monitors that use Wifi/home networks to connect to the camera.

They each have their advantages.  Option 1 establishes a very solid link between the camera and monitor, since the system uses its own dedicated wireless signal.  These types of connections are not as finicky as wifi.  These monitors are easily kept turned on whenever you’re in a different room from your baby.  The downside?  There is no option to send the video signal to your smartphone or computer.  You have to use the monitor that comes with the camera.

Option 2, on the other hand, tend to come in packages with no actual monitor (i.e. the screen), just the camera.  The camera plugs into your home network (or connects via wifi), where it transmits a signal that can be opened with a smartphone app or from a web page.  Your iOS device, Android device, or computer is meant to be used as the monitor.  The benefit of this kind of system is that you can (usually) access the signal even when you’re not home.  You can be across the globe and see what your baby is up to (and I’m guessing there are many times when a parent will wish they were halfway across the globe).  The downside?  It’s more difficult to have an “always on” monitor.  If your baby is asleep in the other room and you want to check on them without entering the room, you need to open an app or web browser.

To me, that defeats the whole purpose of having a baby monitor, though.  I want a system that will let me know whenever the baby wakes up as soon as it happens, not one that I have to check into.  That’s why I opted for Option 1.  After trips to both Target and Babies R Us to see what they had to offer, we opted for the Motorola MBP36 because its 3.5 inch screen was the largest we could find.  (Note: Motorola makes monitors in smaller sizes as well, which run cheaper.)

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Part of me wishes it had more of a HAL 9000-like appearance… Though I can see where that might be a problem for some people.

The Camera comes with a motorized base, allowing you to rotate and tilt it remotely.  It also has a night vision mode and even a small speaker built-in that allows you to talk to anyone in the baby’s room (and play music, but more on that later).   The closest flat surface to our crib with a good vantage point was a tall cabinet.  We placed the monitor on top of the cabinet, thinking we could just aim it down into the crib, but the camera wasn’t able to tilt down enough.  The good news is that the camera has a hook allowing it to be hung from a wall.

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We wound up just hanging it from a wall near (but not directly over) the crib.  Very easy.  It now as a “security camera”-like vantage point.  We can rotate it around to get a good look at pretty much the entire room if need be.

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The 3.5 inch screen was plenty big. The screen shows signal strength, room temperature, and battery strength. The controls are very intuitive.  The four arrows on the left of the screen, by default, control the direction of the camera.  On the right hand side, the top-most button brings up the main on screen menu, which allows you to adjust the volume and brightness, the option to play music from the camera’s speaker, the ability to “zoom” in, the ability to switch cameras (if you have an optional multiple camera set-up), and the ability to set an alarm (for you, not the baby).

The other buttons on that column allow you to turn off the screen (but keep audio going) and use the camera unit as an intercom in the other room. (The “ok” button is just an “enter” button.)

The only features that were disappointing were the music feature (the sound is very mechanical) and the digital zoom (it has only one setting and it’s very pixelated).  Fortunately, I didn’t buy it expecting to really use those features.

The monitor is battery powered, but not via normal batteries.  It has its own proprietary battery.  Before you use it, Motorola recommends you recharge the battery fully for about 16 hours.  If the battery gets low, the monitor will notify you, and you can continue to use it while it recharges.

Across the top of the screen, you’ll see 6 LED indicators.  The one furthest to the left lets you know when its recharging.  The rest are a visual indicator for audio, so you can visually see how much noise the baby is making by how many lights are lit up (even when the volume is turned down, or if you’re hearing is impaired).

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Along the side of the unit, you’ll see two ports.  The lower is for the power adapter.  The upper one is for an AV cable that will allow you to hook the monitor up to a TV set.  The needed AV cable isn’t included, but it looks to be a mini-USB port which is somewhat common.  A lot of devices (like camcorders, digital cameras, some smart phones, etc.) come with an A/V cable that uses such a port.  So you might already have a cable that will work.  I do not have one handy, though, so I’ll have to test this out later.  On Amazon, Motorola-branded cables can be had for $10.

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The back of the monitor also has a kickstand and an antenna you can raise for a stronger signal, though I had no problem getting a signal throughout my entire house even with the antenna down (including spots of the house that are a dead zone for wifi).

One feature I won’t be testing is the ability to work with multiple cameras (we don’t have a need for more than one).  According to the documentation, though, you can connect it to multiple cameras and cycle through the various feeds.  On Amazon, additional cameras sell for just under $100.

And that’s the Motorola MPB36.  It lists for $249.99, but you should be able to find it cheaper if you shop around.  If you can live with a smaller screen and a few less features (like the ability to pan and tilt remotely), there are also 2.8 inch and 2.4 inch systems that retail for quite a bit less ($180 and $130 on Amazon at the moment).

Overall, it appears to be a well-crafted, dependable product.  We look forward to using it with an actual baby…

-Eric

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