Hello Bellvue

So, here I am in one of my favourite places in all the world. For one of my favourite events of the year. I've been coming to the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional summit for a while now, and it is always fun. it is great to see a bunch of familiar faces and get to talk tech.

I flew in this afternoon on a geek-packed plane. The best way to get from Hull to anywhere is to nip down to Humberside airport, take a one hour flight to Schipol airport near Amsterdam and then fly anywhere; usually non-stop. So that's what I did.

The flight was great, although the last twenty five minutes were a bit more action packed than I was expecting. On some flights the captain says "Watch out for turbulence" and nothing much seems to happen. Well, this time we definitely got the bumpy ride that was promised.

After a bit of queuing at the airport we headed for the bus. A 2.50 dollar bus ride beats a 50 dollar cab ride every day. Once I'd unpacked I of course headed for the Bellevue mall and the Microsoft Store there. I wanted to have a look at the new Surface Book and see what other goodies they had in stock. The store was mad busy. Packed with people stacked up and waiting to buy stuff. It was so hectic at one point I had to go upstairs to the Apple store for some peace and quiet....

The Surface Book looks really nice and I was mentally setting aside the funds to get one but I've now really changed my mind. Thing is, it is rather expensive and probably scratches an itch that I haven't got. I don't need hairy graphics performance or all day battery life and so I reckon I can make do with my trusty Surface Pro 3. The other thing that I discovered is that the Surface Pro 4 Type Cover is awesome. Awesome, awesome, awesome. The keys are much better, the trackpad is proper and the hinge arrangement seems a lot stiffer, so it is much less "clacky" if you fold it back to angle the keyboard a bit. This keyboard is so good that I think it makes the Surface Pro a really viable laptop, without the need for the fancy book.

I'm typing this post on the new keyboard and it works really well. I managed to get one of ones with built in fingerprint reader (not available in the UK sadly) and It works wonderfully too. I'm going to have to live with slightly wrong keys here and there, but I reckon it is worth the trade off.

They also had some Microsoft Band 2 devices on sale. I quite liked my version 1 band, but it was never really as comfortable as I would have preferred. The new band addresses that, with much more flexible sides and a really premium feel that is streets ahead of the first version. I picked up one of them too (I figure that if I decided to get one any later they would have sold out) and I'll have a play with it later in the week. All I want to do at the moment is sleep....

Microsoft Band Hackathon

 Rob wriitng

Rob wriitng

Yesterday Robert Munnoch and myself headed down to London to take part in a Microsoft Band Hackathon. The event was based at the Central Working resource in Whitechapel, where the Microsoft Accelerator programme stuff is also based.

At the start of the event each team was given a Microsoft Band each and turned loose to make something interesting.  We downloaded the SDK (it's very easy to use) and got cracking.

There were a whole bunch of teams taking part. Robert and I had some plans involving image processing, accelerometer data acquisition and LittleBits cloud connected devices.

 Proper Pizza

Proper Pizza

The event was great fun, and the catering gave me Three Thing Game flashbacks, which was nice.

We had the LittleBits cloud bit talking to the band. We could get readings from the LittleBits circuit to cause notifications, and we were also using the accelerometer in the Band to control the servo output. Which was fun.

Experience has taught me that I can't do all night development any more and so at around midnight on Monday we set off to find the hotel. This took a lot longer than I'd planned. Note to self: Hotels are often remarkably unaware of their actual location and so you should always double check their directions. Otherwise you end up traipsing through the night to the wrong location. Like we did.

Anyhoo,, we found the place in the end and I settled down for what sleep I could get, while Robert gamely carried on writing code. In the end everything worked at the last minute and we had enough stuff to talk about during the final show and tell presentations.

It's very interesting to see what folks are doing with the device and as the capabilities of the Microsoft Band SDK grow in the future things are going to get even more interesting.

Thanks to Dave Baker and Paul Foster of Microsoft for setting up the event. I'm going to post some of the things that I've learned in the next few days.

Oh, and sorry to the Python Wrestlers this evening. In my sleep deprived state I completely forgot a to create slide deck that I was supposed to have written for the event tonight. The good news is that thanks to sterling support from Warren we managed to have quite a good night in the end, reading the weather from RSS feeds.

Printing a Microsoft Band Stand

One of the nice things about having a 3D printer is that you can, er, print things with it. And so when I wanted a stand for my Microsoft Band I was able to find a design on Thingiverse and then make one.

This is actually the second attempt. The first printed fine but unfortunately because of "squeezage" (something that happens that makes holes smaller because of the way the printing takes place) the slot for the cable was far too tight. I scaled up the design by 1.15 and this has given me a lot more slack. Perhaps 1.12 or so would be perfect.

Anyhoo, I'm very pleased with the result, which means I can just drop the Band on the stand at night and have it freshly charged in the morning. The Band actually has a sleep tracking function, but I've not tried that yet.

Microsoft Band First Impressions

So last week, after a lot of pondering, I decided to take the plunge and get myself a Microsoft Band. I paid an excruciatingly large amount to get one specially imported and it arrived on Thursday. Then, today Microsoft go and announce that the bands are going on sale in the UK next month, at considerably less than I paid to get mine. Wah. Order yours here.

The good news is that I really like the Band. It just works. All day. In fact I reckon I could easily get a second day out of the device if I forget to charge it. I paired it with my Lovely Lumia 1520 and, apart from a hiccup that meant I had to set the region of the phone to US to get the app, I had the program working in no time.

It does pretty much everything that the Android wear devices I've been using do. I get notifications to my wrist, I can do voice searches using Cortana and it tracks my heart rate and activity quite handily. It's very light and pretty comfortable. It exerts a slight grip on my wrist, as if it is taking my pulse all the time, which is actually what it is doing I suppose.  I've not tried any of the scripted workouts that are available, but the companion app does a good job of presenting the data that is captured and I can also view it via the web.

I can preview incoming emails and texts and there is a "quick read" view that shows each word of a message in sequence on the screen. I can also create and send canned responses to calls and texts and even enter messages using a tiny keyboard (although this is bit fiddly).

Last night I took a quick look at the SDK and it looks easy to use. A program can get all the information from the band sensors into the phone including accelerometer, gyro, heart rate, skin temperature, UV levels and even skin resistance. And the app can push back tile designs and bind these to actions.

The Microsoft Band is not really a direct competitor to the Apple watch, but then again it is less than half the price. However, I think it does enough to make it worth considering. And it really does last all day.

Bye Bye Android - Hello Again Windows Phone

Yesterday I waved bye bye to my Android phone and officially ended my experiment with the platform. One of the Android wear watches went with it (I've still got a Moto 360 if anyone is interested). The good news is that it went to a very happy recipient who I know will get a lot out of it. The better news is that I'm back on Windows Phone. I've learned quite a lot in the few months I've been using an Android phone and an Android Wear watch.

  1. It doesn't really matter that much which kind of phone you have. They all work well and they all do the fundamentals. When I moved to Android I had this vision of all the new and exciting apps that I could run now I had the most popular mobile platform. True, I did download a few of these and play with them a while. But then I went back to doing the same things I've always done, which my Lovely Lumia supported very well indeed.
  2. Android has some great bits (the way that you can bind actions to events is really, really nice) and some really clunky bits. For me the most irritating aspect of the design was the way that huge chunks of the screen were given over to things that didn't add any value and just took up space. And the mail and calendar applications seemed much more confusing and harder to use than their Windows Phone counterparts. The address book and phone user interface I found fiddly too. These comments only mean that I had these issues, they don't mean that you will of course.
  3. Having notifications on your wrist is very, very nice. You might get a bit tired of the email ones, but knowing that you aren't going to miss a phone call or a text is rather pleasing and occasionally really useful.
  4. The battery life of the current crop of Android wear devices is nowhere near good enough. Much as I loved the user experience and screen of the Moto 360 watch the fact that it conked out at around 5:00 pm made it pretty much useless. You can blame me for having the "ambient" mode turned on to force the screen to hang around longer, but I like using a watch as a watch I can look at and get the time instantly. When I'm giving lectures I like to glance at my watch to see how much time I've got left, with the Moto I couldn't do this (even in ambient mode it struggled), and with the Sony watch the screen was a bit hard to use in this situation. I should have had a look at the LG watch which has a lower power screen I suppose, but I really didn't like the styling of that one.

So, I'm now back on my Lovely Lumia 1520, running the Denim update and coupled to a Microsoft Band. The Band tells the time all the time and at the end of 18 hours of heavy use has around 60% of the battery left. Splendid.

I Want a Microsoft Band

Microsoft have just released their Band, a smartwatch/fitness device that looks really nice. They are selling very well apparently, which means that I might have problems getting one when I head out to Seattle for the MVP Summit. And I really want one.

Now, I fully realise that the pursuit of gadgets is ultimately fruitless as they lead an ephemeral life, doomed to be superseded by the next iteration and driven by a marketing beat. You could argue that people who try to validate their existence by surrounding themselves with the latest technology are perhaps only proving their ultimate shallowness. And in the end the accumulation of material goods is ultimately futile (for a full discourse on this matter listen to the wonderful "Mountains'O''Things" by Tracy Chapman).  

But I still want one. 

If anyone finds themselves in a position to get me one (medium size should fit I reckon as I'm, half way up the strap on my Pebble) I will do the following for them, in addition to paying for the device:

  • supply them with a printed, autographed copy of the latest C# Yellow Book
  • write a poem for them (I am a published poet) on any subject they nominate
  • provide them with a unique Windows Phone Controlled Wedding Light,  in case they have a daughter getting married in the near future who needs table decorations. I'll custom build it with a choice of base colour and ship it to you anywhere in the world. 

Like I said, I may be shallow and gadget obsessed, but I really want one of those bands.