Logitech Harmony Ultimate Remote Control

[In 2011 we reviewed the Logitech Harmony 700, which is no longer available. -- Mark]

In the course of my work I need to test a lot of TV-connected devices for review and evaluation. Two game consoles, two DVRs, and a handful of media streaming devices can become a nightmare to control for myself, much less guests.

To reduce the confusion I’ve always used a universal remote but they’ve always had major drawbacks. Some don’t control everything. Some had to be held steadily pointed towards the devices for minutes to work properly. And of course programming some universal remotes is at best an exercise in tedium.

The best I’ve found so far is the Logitech Harmony Ultimate. It’s not perfect but it has reduced many frustrating problems to mere annoyances and eliminated some altogether.

First the programming is easier on Harmony remotes than almost any other brand. It’s not perfect but easier. You plug the remote into your computer and install some software. Then you tell the software what devices you have. This may take some crawling around on your knees by your TV to read exact model numbers. Also sometimes the model just isn’t there and you just have to pick a close one and hope. Most of the time though everything is there and works. I wish the interface on the software was better designed but it gets the job done.

Once you have all your devices, you set up activities. If you want to Watch TV for instance, you set up an activity that turns on the TV, puts it on the right HDMI input, and turns on the DVR. Same for Watch Apple TV or Play Xbox or any other activity you want to do. Soon it will even add home automation tasks like dimming lights. It handles both infrared and RF controlled devices by the way. So the devices don’t need to be in plain view.

Once you have the remote programmed life becomes much easier. The Ultimate works with a hub that you set up with your WiFi network. The hub takes care of sending commands to your TV. You put the hub by your TV and devices (with an extender if you have a couple shelves) and then you don’t need to point the remote at the devices. In fact you don’t even need to be in the same room. I make use of this when watching DirecTV over Slingbox on Roku in the bedroom.

When all works well, which is most of the time, the thing is a dream. You press a button on the touch screen for the right activity and the remote takes care of the rest. The downside is occasionally something gets out of whack and the wrong input gets selected or a command doesn’t go through. In those cases the remote tries to guess what’s wrong but it’s a very poor guesser. There’s a HELP button that walks you through troubleshooting that can usually fix any issue. I usually just go to the remote’s device menu and take control of the devices myself to put them back in the right state.

If you only have a couple devices, the Harmony Ultimate is probably overkill. But if you have 7 devices hooked up plus a TiVo going through your Xbox One, then this could be a big frustration reducer.

-- Tom Merritt  

Logitech Harmony Ultimate
$350

Available from Amazon



Mophie Space Pack

Lately I’ve been buying card magic instructional DVDs (I recommend the Royal Road To Card Magic by R. Paul Wilson 5-DVD Boxed Set in conjunction with the classic book of the same name). I wanted to watch these DVDs on my iPhone while on a plane, so I used Handbrake, a free open source video transcoder, to rip the DVDs into MP4 files.

But the standard way to get movies on an iPhone is to use iTunes. I don’t like using iTunes as much as I used to. It’s become a bloated, confusing catch-all. Apple needs to reboot iTunes.

The Mophie Space pack lets me avoid using iTunes. It’s a protective case for the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s that contains a 1700mAh battery and 16GB of built-in storage. That’s enough for about 7 hours of video.

Transferring video files couldn’t be simpler. The storage shows up as a hard drive on your computers desktop when you connect your phone. It’s a simple matter to drag MP4 files (or any other kind of file) into the drive. Then, I can watch the movies using the Mophie Space app on my phone (it has its own player). The battery doubles the energy capacity of the phone, too, which means I can watch videos on a long flight and still have juice to summon Uber when I my plane lands.

The Mophie Space Pack also comes in handy when I’m on my computer and I come across an MP3 of a podcast or interview I want to listen to later. I just drag the file into the storage icon and it will be on my phone when I’m ready to listen.

phone-grab

-- Mark Frauenfelder  

Mophie Space Pack for Apple iPhone 5/5S – Retail Packaging
$150

Available from Amazon



Micromuff

I use a small camera (Cisco Flip) to take video. It’s great for what I do, except small amounts of wind cause a lot of noise.

That’s where Micromuff helps. You have a small Velcro patch that glues to your camera, and a wind muff that attaches to the Velcro. I’ve been using MicroMuff Original for about six months, and it’s brilliant. I can hear people talking, not wind blowing.

I don’t think there’s anything similar, unless you’re going for professional external microphones and “proper” wind muffs. But even then this is handy because it makes syncing audio easier.

-- Dan Beale-Cocks  

Micromuff
£12.95



Logitech B530 USB Headset

I purchased this on a whim a few months ago to use at my office. To say that it was a great investment would be an understatement. Comfortable and flexible, the headset does its job well by providing an incredible sound quality that is unmatched to any other headset I’ve used. The mic is also surprisingly efficient, capturing the smallest or thinnest sounds and making them audible (often to the detriment or embarrassment of the user). I would highly recommend them.

-- Jacob  

B530 USB Headset
$37

Available from Amazon



Kindle Paperwhite

I’ve been reading books on mobile devices since 1997 when my first daughter was born and I learned that I could hold a Palm Pilot and her at the same time. It was good to have an illuminated screen so she could sleep in my arms in the dark while I tapped my way through a novel.

Since then I’ve owned lots of different e-readers: Sony Librie (2004), Kindle (2007), iPhone (2007), iPad (2010), Kindle Fire (2011), and Nexus 7 (2012). They all have their own pros and cons, but none of them comes as close to perfection as the Kindle Paperwhite, which I bought in 2013.

A Paperwhite is better than a tablet because there’s no screen glare — an iPhone, iPad, Nexus 7, or Kindle Fire is useless outdoors on a sunny day. The Paperwhite is better than my original Kindle because the display is illuminated, so I can read it in bed with the lights out while my wife sleeps. The Paperwhite also has much better battery life than any of my other e-readers, even the original Kindle, which requires recharging every couple of days. The size and weight of the Paperwhite allow for comfortable one-handed reading. (The iPad requires propping on a pillow for reading in bed.)

I prefer reading on my Kindle over print books because I can look up definitions, translate foreign phrases into English, order new books for instant delivery, and read Wikipedia entries without leaving the page I’m on. The “X-Ray” feature tells me about the fictional characters in a book, which frequently comes in handy when I forget who someone is. The Kindle also predicts how much longer it will take for me to finish reading a book or chapter.

I’m sure a better e-reader will come along one day, but even if it didn’t I’d be happy with the Paperwhite for the rest of my reading days.

compare
Kindle on left, Kindle Paperwhite with screen illumination on right.

-- Mark Frauenfelder  

Kindle Paperwhite
$139

Available from Amazon



Self Publishing Cool Tools

The new Cool Tools book is self-published. (As a reminder, this “Catalog of Possibilities” contains the very best of this blog over the past 10 years, distilled into a fun-to-read, oversized paper book — perfect for the young at heart.) I like to say it is self-published for all the right reasons — not because I could not find a real publisher to back it, but for three other important benefits. I’ll describe those below and I’ll also tell you how the economics of self-publishing work for this book. Finally, I’ll include a few of the cool tools used to create this huge book with only two of us on staff.

The first benefit of self-publishing was speed. I finished writing and assembling the book in September and by October I had the book listed on Pre-Order status on Amazon. It will be available to customers (in bookstores, too!) the first week of December. If this book was being published by a New York publisher I’d still be in negotiations to maybe have it available next summer.

Second, control. The book is unorthodox. It doesn’t fit the mold for a serious book. It’s kind of a catalog. Even the size was off-putting for pros. A big floppy book doesn’t travel well, doesn’t fit well into bookstore shelves. The publishers want to know can I perhaps change that? Then there’s the commercial aspect.  The book is a shopping guide that tells you where to buy things. It points readers to Amazon, a lot. Publishers and bookstores hate that. They perceive Amazon as the enemy and one chain even refused to carry it because of this. My solution was to bypass them.

Thirdly, in my recent experience with established publishers I wound up doing most of the work myself anyway. For my last book with Viking/Penguin, I hired the editor to edit my book; I hired the illustrator to make the illustrations; I turned in cover design concepts, some of which they used; I did the most effective marketing and publicity (via social media). The only things I did not do — which were significant! — was the financing and distribution. On this book, I decided to tackle these as well, since I would still be doing all the rest.

Self-publishing means I have full control, but also full responsibility.  Since I was paying for the paper and ink myself, I didn’t waste any pages. There are no blank pages or white spaces in this book. Even the inside covers are printed –with the table of contents!  Every inch is doing some work. The book is incredibly dense.

Self-publishing an ebook is one thing. Self-publishing a gigantic book that weighs 4.5 pounds is another. I knew I was in trouble when the overseas printer called to ask me if I had a loading dock at my warehouse. Warehouse? I hardly have a garage.  “Ummm, how much room do I need?” I asked. She said, “Well, you should expect a shipping container and a half.” That’s a big pile. So I signed up with a book distributor, Publishers Group West, that caters to small publishers and most of the books will be shipped to their warehouse in Tennessee.

The books were printed in Hong Kong. I tried to get bids in the US, but because of the oversize of the book, no US printer would even bid on it. One large printer recommended by the distributor told me, “I hate to say this but you need to go to China to get this printed.” So I did. They did a fantastic job, quickly and at a good price. The Hong Kong printing plant is high automation. Think robots not coolie labor. The books are now on a container ship going across the Panama Canal and up the Mississippi River to Tennessee. I am awaiting three pallets of books that were diverted to the West Coast, and that will arrive at my home. I am praying they will fit into my garage.

The economics of self-publishing will decide this book’s long-term fate. I can outline the rough costs of the book, but in fact I haven’t even got the final bills so a more accurate accounting will have to wait till later. Here’s what I know so far:

There will be about a total of 8,500 copies for sale on Amazon and in bookstores. The unit cost to print the book is $6. Shipping is about $1 per book. The cover price is $39.99. Amazon immediately discounts it to $25-27 (I set the book price anticipating Amazon’s discount, which seems to vary by the day). Amazon takes something like 40%. The book distributor takes their cut. In the end I’ll take in about $10 per book, before expenses. To figure my net gain I have to deduct the cost I incurred in creating the book — the editors, designers and proofers I hired to create the 472 pages. (I am not counting the years I’ve put into it). I am still making the tally of those costs. My grand goal is to break even.

But I used some cool tools to keep the costs low. Much of the work was outsourced to the freelancers of the world on Elance. About a million freelancers enrolled in Elance around the world will bid on a job. I had several jobs I outsourced to Elance (although many, if not most, of the freelancers work in the US). The layout design of the 472 pages was specified with the request to bid the job on a per-page cost. Out of the 30 or so Elance designers who bid, we picked 8 to do test pages, and then selected 6 to get the work. Their bids were not the lowest. They were in the middle range, but had good ratings from previous work. The 6 designers worked in parallel. The ones whose work we liked best we gave more pages to. The amount we paid was low for San Francisco area, but most important was the speed. We could design the entire mammoth book in only 4 weeks. We hired proofers on Elance as well, and again we hired them in parallel. We took bids on a per-page basis, winnowed the best candidates down with a few test pages, and then got them going all at once, giving more pages to those who did the best work. We proofread the entire book in several days. We also used Elance to find graphic artists who could remove the backgrounds from product shots; one worker hailed from Turkey. Elance has a very intelligent and easy-to-use interface, which aids in protecting buyer and seller, managing bids, and keeping track of work submitted. I consider it one of the chief tools in self-publishing.

The other indispensable tool we used was Dropbox. This allows folks to work remotely on files anywhere in the world, while also backing them up to the cloud. The book was prepared in InDesign, the layout program from Adobe. It’s been around for more than a decade, and it keeps getting better, integrating nicely with Dropbox. We kept our InDesign files, plus thousands of pictures, and other large files in our respective Dropboxes, and never needed to move them the whole time. (We upgraded everyone’s account to the pro unlimited storage version.) This made working remotely and collaboratively and rapidly easy and smooth. I don’t believe we could have done a book this large and complex over the net without something like Dropbox.

We had to go to China to print this large and colorful book. We tendered bids from several Shenzhen-based printers but went with Paramount, based in Hong Kong. They were about $0.30 per book more expensive, but communication was greatly improved by their office in Canada. The standard way to send final “art work” to a printer these days is to send a PDF. Our PDF was so large, it could not be compiled into one file; we had to send three. The printers in China send back a “soft-proof” which is merely another PDF that has gone through their pagination, profiles, and printing check software. We did not get a “hard proof” — or paper print — of each page. This is a photographic print that mimics the effect of the printing press that will be used. To save money we opted to only get overnighted a hard proof of the cover and a couple of sample pages. They were just about right on, so we clicked the “Okay print this book” button.

In assembling this large and heavy paper book, I have much more respect for commercial publishers. It is tough to make this precarious publishing machine work. It is not easy to make money publishing paper books. It is very much like making art. In fact I think of this large beautiful book as a work of art — practical art. Ten years in the making.

If you want your own piece of practical art, pre-order here:

Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities

-- KK  

Sample Excerpts:

CoolToolOblique475




Engel MX1 Android Stick PC

I have been using an old Windows laptop attached to my TV as a home media machine for several years now. My brother was asking how he could get something similar on a budget. It seemed to me that with the passage of time, there must be something more elegant out there than the rig I set up.

After looking around for quite a while, I stumbled on some fairly obscure Chinese products and an entire community of makers who have developed the aftermarket firmware to make these little computers run nearly flawlessly. For about $40 to your door (add about $15 if you want a camera and mic) these Android sticks you get at Engel.com fit the bill. They turn your HD TV into a well-performing Android computer, including Wi-Fi, HDMI, USB, Micro SD card interface, and Bluetooth v2. Add some memory (up to 32 GB on a micro SD chip or any USB thumb drive) and it’s a fine media player and web browser. It will run most Android apps.

It gets a little warm running 1080p vids, but I haven’t had any problems from that. Be sure to get the Finless ROM, a primo firmware that is just plain better than the firmware that comes from the factory. You can add it yourself but why? So far Engel’s product is the only one I have run into with the Finless ROM pre-installed.

There are several manufacturers of these machines and none of them are household names. To add to the confusion, there are counterfeits which are sold by some vendors. Tales of poor hardware and firmware abound, with broken Wi-Fi antennas, overheating and software conflicts being common themes. The proprietor at Engel.com, Gavin Engel, seems to have chosen his line carefully from the available models.

In the six weeks or so using it, I have added my favorite media player, office suite and the Firefox browser, but the included software will also work well. I had to ditch one added app that shut down Wi-Fi, but a quick uninstall of the offending program put everything right again.

For ease of use, add a USB hub, a wireless keyboard and mouse. If you are tight on money, download the app from Engel to your android cell phone that turns it into a perfectly serviceable keyboard and touch pad for this computer. I was using that app for a time before I got an aftermarket controller.

I notice that the Engel site has an “unbricking” service. The makers at the Freaktab bulletin board tend to push the edge of the envelope with their firmware experimentation, and there are numerous reports where they have run the little things right off the rails.I suspect this should not be a problem if you don’t go root with them. Some folks there have gone so far as to run Linux on the sticks.

These computers are tiny, they’re dirt cheap and they work. I just gave it to my brother for his birthday. I’m getting another one because these will run a 1080p video better than the rig I have, which pixilates like crazy at that resolution.

-- Thomas Meacham  



Visual CD

Visual CD is a freeware application that indexes the content of your optical media and other storage devices. You can search for any file you want to find out which disc it’s on, instead of randomly inserting CDs/DVDs in your drive to find out which one holds the file. I’ve been using it for about 6 years now, and I can’t count how much time it’s saved me. Out of all the free software I’ve looked at, this is the best one I could find.

I have a collection of computer files on 500 CDs and DVDs. They hold backups all my files. I have sub-collections of CDs/DVDs for each type of media I back up — applications, music, videos, personal photos and videos, and so on.

The problem is that if I want to retrieve a specific file, I usually don’t remember on which CD/DVD/media it is recorded. Instead of having to try different discs until I find it, I just search the index I made using Visual CD to find out which disc has the file I want.

Each time I record a CD/DVD, I index it using Visual CD. The index options include scanning and indexing files inside archive files (ZIP, ARJ, RAR, ACE, CAB, etc) and even metadata from music files. The index of each media is saved in a VSD file. Each index created (.VSD) can be placed in a hierarchical structure. I have a folder for my photos and videos collection, another one for software, another one for themed videos and so on.

Visual CD also can create reports of the media contents. You can export those reports to HTML or TXT files, and they can be generated for a single index or a collection of indices using a batch tool.

-- Alessandro Mattos  

Visual CD for Windows
Free



Gumroad

Gumroad is an easy way to add a micro-payment function to your blog, website, Facebook page, or Twitter — anywhere you can post a link. It allows you to quickly offer digital products — photos, videos, music, apps, PDFs — for small (or large) prices. It is not a marketplace, rather it generates a link that you post so that you can “sell where you share.” When a friend, fan, or follower purchases something off of your page, they get an email with a link for the download from Gumroad’s server. You can set your price anywhere from 0 and up. Gumroad’s cut is 5% + 25 cents per transaction, no setup or monthly fees. That’s a good deal if you are selling things for a few dollars, and better than other digital storefronts. Something priced as low as 99 cents means you get $.69 and Gumroad gets $.30.

For the past year I’ve been using Gumroad to sell a PDF version of my True Films guide to documentary movies for $.99 and the system works great.

-- KK  



Yeti Microphone

A podcast with poor acoustics is exhausting to listen to. As a podcast listener, I’ve dropped several otherwise excellent podcasts because they sound like recordings made with two tin cans and a string.

As a podcast producer, I strive to produce shows with good sound quality. Many things affect sound quality: room acoustics, audio editing methods, Internet speed (when you have guests joining you over Skype, for instance), and recording equipment. The easiest variable to lock down is the microphone. After years of trying different sub-$100 USB microphones, I’ve finally found one that does almost everything I want: the Yeti, by Blue. This retro-looking desktop microphone has several features that make it vastly superior to the one I used to use — the slightly less expensive Snowball (also by Blue).

The best thing about the Yeti is the built-in headphone amp, which allows me to monitor my voice in real time. Now that I can hear what I sound like, my delivery style has changed from near-shouting to a more laid-back, Ira Glass way of speaking. (One listener tweeted that I sounded much calmer on my podcasts and wondered why.) The headphone monitor also has its own volume control.

The Yeti has a microphone gain knob, which makes it easy to quickly adjust the sensitivity without having to fiddle with the recording software’s sound preferences. The mute button is nice addition that I use when a guest is talking and airplanes are passing over my house or I need to clear my throat. The recording pattern knob has symbols to indicate stereo, omni, cardioid, and bi-directional modes (the Snowball’s three-way switch unhelpfully reads 1, 2, and 3!).

Two things prevent the the Yeti from being perfect: 1) Two of the controls are on the front of the mic and two are on the back, forcing me to crane my neck to adjust the gain or change the recording pattern. 2) Vibrations from my computer’s keyboard, fan, and hard drive pass through the foam rubber lining on the base of the microphone stand, causing a rumble sound. My workaround is to set the microphone on a rubber iPhone case, which does a great job of damping the noise. (I might end up cutting the iPhone case to fit the Yeti’s base and glue it on.)

-- Mark Frauenfelder  

Yeti USB Microphone
$127

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Blue Microphones