Neil Young, the legendary musician, called me out of the blue in January 2012. He’d gotten my name from a mutual friend who had given him a copy of my book, “From Concept to Consumer.” I’d been a long-time fan and attended many of his concerts over the years, so it was exciting to talk with him. It also turned out to be one of the most important calls of my life.

Neil explained to me about his quest to bring the same high-quality music that he hears in his studio to the public. He explained how the movement to MP3s that reduces the data in the recording by 95 percent, was a huge loss to both the audience and the music industry. He was firmly convinced that those of us who love music would appreciate listening to high quality, uncompressed music, rather than what was being offered by the big electronic companies. He would later tell me that this effort was one of the most important things he has ever done in his career.

Neil invited me to meet him at his ranch in Northern California and asked if I could help him develop a music player that he would call the PonoPlayer (“Pono” means righteous in Hawaiian.)

It was an idea that existed in his mind and a few sketches, but clearly something he had thought about for years. It would be part of his PonoMusic system that would deliver the best possible sound.

Of course, I said yes and assembled a small development team, including a few very smart engineers with whom I had worked before. We then went to work over a span of two years, meeting regularly with Neil.

Neil Young’s PonoPlayer would replace MP3 players. Courtesy photo

Now, two years later, after several starts and stops, overcoming a number of technical challenges and being turned down by venture investors, Neil was ready to tell the world about PonoMusic.

He chose to introduce the product at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, an annual music, film and interactive conference. Neil was the keynote speaker and drew 2,500 people to hear him talk about the importance of his mission: to save a dying art and bring back high-quality music (Listen here http://alturl.com/8hhy4).

Simultaneously, the company, now with a CEO and software head, introduced the product on Kickstarter to raise some funds, but more importantly to see whether people cared about this cause. If we listened to the supposed experts, we could have easily been discouraged. Many claimed MP3 was good enough, that no one can discern audio quality beyond a CD, and many said people just don’t care.

Kickstarter was the ultimate test. Would people be willing to commit to pay for a product on the spot sight unseen? Kickstarter rules don’t even guarantee that the contributor will get the product. We offered our players and special signature editions from many famous artists along with less expensive items, all with the goal of raising $800,000 in 34 days.

While I was hopeful, I was also anxious. Never could I have predicted what would happen in the first few hours of the campaign.

We went live on Kickstarter at 1 p.m. March 11 that preceded by a few hours the talk Neil gave to the packed ballroom. We figured the talk would bring awareness to the Kickstarter campaign and that’s when we’d see contributions begin. But before Neil spoke his first word, $300,000 was donated and the number passed $500,000 during the talk.

That was an auspicious beginning. PonoMusic raised its goal of $800,000 in the first day and by Monday was approaching $4 million. By Friday morning, PonoMusic became officially the most-funded project in Kickstarter’s technology category and the 11th-most-funded in the world.

I’ve worked on many products over the years, many of them iconic (Polaroid SX-70 and Apple Newton), but never have I worked on something so important, particularly to the world of music. It’s been an honor to play a part to help Neil fulfill his goals. While there is still an immense amount of work to be done, we have the wind on our back from those who believe in what we are doing.

Pono will go on sale in the fall, once we finish the engineering and prepare it for mass production, and once the PonoMusic store is completed. (ponomusic.com)


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The government-mandated phaseout of the incandescent bulb has opened the door for low-energy replacements. A couple of years back, compact fluorescent lighting, or CFL, was the favored alternative. But, now there’s something better, LED lights. They more resemble the conventional lights they are replacing and they don’t have the mercury found in CFLs.

What’s made LED lights feasible is their plummeting prices due to new design innovations, manufacturing efficiencies and subsidies from electric companies. Priced just a year ago from $60 to $90, LED lamps can now be found for as little as $10.

LEDs are tiny electronic solid-state components that emit an intensely bright light. Individual LEDs have been used in flashlights, lighting in cars and even large-screen LCD TV illumination. And now, many of these high-energy LEDs have been combined to create light bulbs to replace incandescent and CFL lights.

LEDs are more efficient than CFLs and last longer, and at their new lower prices provide a big savings. Replacing a dozen conventional bulbs with LED bulbs can save you $400 per year in electricity or $10,000 over the bulbs’ life.

Most importantly, some of the latest LED designs are much more suitable than CFL light bulbs that have weird shapes and produce uneven illumination. And while I haven’t tested them for many hours, they are advertised to last longer.

Cree light bulbs are said to save 84 percent of the energy compared to typical incandescent bulbs, are designed to last 25 times longer, and come with a 10-year limited warranty. Courtesy photo

I replaced most of my recessed lights and light bulbs a few years ago with CFL bulbs made by FEIT. These bulbs use a coiled tube shape — some bare and some inside a glass enclosure. They are far from a decorator’s dream —the coiled light pattern casts striped shadows on lampshades and the long bodies often peer below the bottom of lampshades or outside recessed fixtures.

CFL lights take a couple of minutes to reach full brightness, while LED lights turn on instantly. And, based on my experience, CFLs last a shorter time than their ratings say. While rated to last 13 times longer than the bulbs they replace, I needed to replace about half of the bulbs in the first year.

CFLs use about 25 percent of the energy of an incandescent, but because of their containments, they must be recycled rather than discarded. However, only some stores that sell them will take back the used bulbs. In the San Diego area, The Home Depot takes them, but Dixieline, where I purchased the bulbs, does not. So CFLs can save money, but they are not ideal.

What’s important in selecting one of these new LEDs? Long life, uniform light distribution, natural color temperature and the same size as the conventional bulb it replaces. It should also be capable of dimming.

In my quest for a better light bulb, I’ve been trying out some LED bulbs from Cree, an American company that has been a pioneer in the development of LED lighting. I first came across the company’s name on some of the first very bright (and expensive) pocket-sized LED flashlights. Cree designed and supplied the LED assembly to other flashlight manufacturers.

There are many brands that make LED lamps, including Philips, Sylvania and FEIT. But I found that at least for now, the Cree bulb most looks like and works like the incandescent bulb it is replacing. The other brands fail to emit light in a uniform pattern in all directions because they have designs that block the light with fins, covers or heat sinks.

The Cree LED bulbs are made with what the company calls Filament Tower Technology, which emulates the incandescent filament in which the illumination originates from the center of the bulb.

The Cree bulb emits a similar pattern with its halo-shaped arrangement of the LEDs inside the bulb around its center axis. The enclosure around this tower is shaped just like a light bulb, and has the same diffuse finish to spread out the light. The illumination appears to be similar in color to an incandescent. What was startling to me was that during use, the outer surface, which looks just like an incandescent bulb, remains cold to the touch.

According to Cree, the bulbs save 84 percent of the energy compared to typical incandescent bulbs, are designed to last 25 times longer, and come with a 10-year limited warranty.

I’ve been trying their 60-watt replacement version. It produces the same 800 lumens as a 60-watt bulb, but uses just 9.5 watts. It fit into lamps that have little room for anything longer or wider than a normal bulb, such as a garage work lamp with a shroud and a living room lamp with a lampshade bracket surrounding the bulb.

With local subsidies from electric companies, the bulbs cost less than $10; retail is $13. If you use them three hours a day, they will last for 20 years! The bulbs are available locally at The Home Depot. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

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Imagine a slim, lightweight notebook computer with a capable 11.6-inch screen and full-size keyboard, complete with a Microsoft Office-like apps suite for $249, a fraction of what you would pay for a PC or Mac notebook. It’s the Acer C720/ZHN Chromebook.

What’s the catch? Chromebook uses the Chrome OS, a computer platform invented by Google that’s built around the Chrome browser as its interface. Chrome OS is designed to take full advantage of the cloud, while keeping hardware features to a minimum. It doesn’t need a fast processor or a hard drive. It comes with 100GB of online storage called Google Drive, 16GB of internal storage and 2GB of RAM. A Google Drive with 100GB of storage costs $60 a year beginning in the third year.

Not having a complex OS or advanced hardware, the Acer is light at 2¾ pounds, yet fast and responsive. Startup times are quick: about 15 seconds from off and instantly from standby. The notebook uses an Intel 1.4 GHz Intel Celeron chip, a perfect match because of its low power consumption.

The catch, however, is you need a wireless connection to do most of the things you now do on your standard notebook. Relying on wireless means that when you lose connectivity, you lose access to most of your files, your email inbox and office apps, although there are few simple apps that let you write email and docs while offline.

Ironically as I write this column, my Time Warner Internet went down and, even though the company identified the problem as theirs, they can’t send a technician to the area for three days.

You can download additional apps from the Chrome Web Store, but it’s slim pickings — mainly games, utilities and productivity software. Some of these apps are simply links to a Web client such as Evernote and AutoCAD, again requiring a wireless connection.

While you can use applications that work through the Web, such as GoToMeeting, UberConference, OpenTable, Southwest, etc., you will not be able to run those apps that require downloaded software, such as Skype, scanner software, SugarSync, etc. And note that even though Chrome OS is created by Google, it’s a different OS than with Android, so Android apps will not work.

The Acer Chromebook is easy for a novice to use. There’s no OS to learn, no updates to slow you down, just a simple browser window with several icons at the bottom of the screen. One of the icons opens a small settings menu and another opens a small popup window with 24 built-in Google apps, including Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google Docs, a file manager, music player, camera and photo manager.

Battery life is rated at 8.5 hours and in my use with WiFi on and the display at full brightness, I got almost 7 hours, very good performance for a notebook. The 11.6-inch display with a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels and matte finish can’t compare with a top-of-the-line notebook, but it’s generally good enough.

The keyboard is full size and average compared to other notebooks. It’s not as good as a MacBook or ThinkPad, but it’s easy to type quickly and accurately.

When Google invented this new platform, it chose to make changes to the keyboard, mostly all positive. There’s no caps lock, something that should have been eliminated years ago. That’s the key often struck by mistake leading to A STRING OF ALL CAPS THAT NEEDS TO BE RETYPED. In its place is a Google search key.

There’s a large clickable trackpad below the keyboard, arranged much like a MacBook. Function keys are replaced by a row of useful action keys including forward and back page, reload, full screen, brightness and volume settings.

Another limitation is that you can’t print directly to a printer. You need to set up your printer to use Google Cloud Print, which prints via the cloud and requires a printer with built-in WiFi.

For those who spend lots of time online browsing, doing email, and writing, you may find a Chromebook to be perfectly suitable as a second computer or a first, if you’re on a tight budget.

Overall, I liked the Acer C720 for its simplicity of use, and particularly for eliminating the need to pamper an expensive notebook. Since most of the software and files are on the Web, you need not worry about losing or dropping the computer, upgrading its software or backing it up. That also makes security less of an issue — assuming you trust Google. But that’s a subject for another day.

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The Basis’ Carbon Steel Edition watch is one of the latest wearable wrist devices that promise to monitor our activities and motivate us to be more fit. It’s part of a category called wearable technology that’s been generating a huge amount of interest, if not yet huge sales, and one that market analysts predict will become explosive.

Unlike the wristbands from Withings, Fitbit, Nike and Jawbone, the Basis is a somewhat bulky watch with a one-inch-wide silicon rubber strap. It’s not to be confused with another class of tech watches such as the Pebble that links to your smartphone to alert you to calls, emails, texts and appointments.

The Basis is the most advanced of the health-monitoring devices due to its many sensors and its ability to monitor many elements while you are awake or asleep.

The black-and-chrome watch has a digital display with four touch buttons on the corners of its face, a large sync button on the right edge, and six contacts and an optical sensor on the back. There’s also an internal accelerometer that measures motion in three directions.

The Basis’ Carbon Steel Edition is capable of measuring your heart rate, skin moisture and temperature, as well as your activity level. The company claims that it’s able to use these measurements to detect your activity, such as walking, running, biking, and sleeping, although in my use it was unable to detect outdoor biking.

The watch collects this information and syncs it your computer, iPhone or Android phone, and displays the information in several graphs.

Its display allows you to monitor your progress and readings in real time, as well as show the time and date. However, I found the dated black-and-white transflective LCD display to be particularly hard to read because of its very low contrast both indoors and outdoors, even when the backlight was turned on. The company says this is a result of trying to extend the battery life, but an E Ink type of display would be a big improvement.

During the day it measured how long I walked, how many steps I took, my heart rate and calories burned. Oddly, and similar to the Nike Band, it doesn’t display the distance I walked, although 2,000 steps is about equivalent to a mile.

The Basis did an excellent job tracking my sleeping patterns, determining the different levels of sleep, how long I slept and how many times I awoke. It assigned a sleep score each night that ranged from 78 percent to 85 percent. It detected when I went to bed and didn’t need to be manually set to sleep mode, something required by other devices.

While most other health monitors display the calories burned associated with a physical activity, the Basis displays the calories you burn all of the time, so it would not be unusual to wake up and see a few hundred calories burned while sleeping or a couple thousand over the full day.

The usefulness of these devices depends on how well the information is analyzed and displayed, and the advice provided. Also how well it inspires you to improve on your results and motivate you to do better.

Basis does a good job of presenting the information in its charts. You can see a two-dimensional map of your heart rate, for example, how far you’ve walked every day, and an indication of your sleeping habits.

However, as with all other devices I’ve tested, there is noticeable gap in interpretation or explanation of what these measurements mean. For example, I found that my pulse ranged between 60 and 90 over a few hours, but the site offered no explanation or even links to sites that could help me interpret the results.

Likewise, I could see a graph of skin temperature and moisture that changed over time, but no explanation or evaluation. This is a huge omission and lessens the value of collecting this data. Perhaps it’s the caution companies’ not wanting to dispense medical advice, but certainly links to relevant articles would help. Or it may be the actual measurements are not always reliable. In fact, the company notes that pulse measurements taken from your wrist are not as accurate as a chest monitor. In my use, I found sometimes when I was exercising at the gym, the pulse rate remained at 62.

The biggest value of the Basis is monitoring changes over time and altering your habits. For example, I realized when checking the watch that I was getting very little activity sitting in front of the computer, and now make it a point to stop and take a walk. The satisfaction has come from seeing my walking increase over the week, moving from minutes to hours each day.

The software introduces you to new challenges over time using “Habits,” which are like goals. As you do more, you gain points and gain access to more Habits. Examples include starting with the Habit of wearing the watch for 12 hours, then walking 6,000 steps, biking twice a week and so on. You can set targets for each of these.

The Basis has an internal rechargeable battery that lasts for three or four days. It’s easily recharged in a couple of hours by snapping it onto a custom USB cradle that’s also used to upload the data from the watch.

Overall, I found the Basis’ Carbon Steel Edition to be the most useful of all the health-related wearables. Its large size makes it more of a watch replacement than the competitions’ band devices that you can wear with your normal watch. And its large size may be a turnoff to some. The watch costs $199 at mybasis.co, which makes it a good value, considering all that it offers.

You can expect there will be many new products in this category this year, including the highly anticipated iWatch from Apple. Some will combine health monitoring with alerts from the phone, along with more active use of the phone’s own functions such as GPS. So, you might consider waiting to see what else will become available.

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Who can resist software that helps you organize and work more efficiently? While many apps claim to do this, these three really deliver on their promise.

Day One: One of my challenges is to find a way to create random notes and be able to retrieve them quickly. I’ve used Evernote, but found it’s become too feature-laden and complex for doing simple things. The note app on smartphones takes it to the other extreme of simplicity with a scarcity of features. I recently discovered Day One and, like Goldilocks’ porridge, it’s just right.

Day One is software for the Mac, iPhone and iPad that replicates the familiar paper datebook or journal we once used to keep track of our daily activities, take notes and jot down reminders. While some may want to use it to keep a meticulous diary of their daily activities, many will use it to jot down random notes that would otherwise end up on scraps of paper and get misplaced. It’s ideal for both.

For example, this weekend I’ve added a few notes including a book to read and a movie to see, all suggested while out to dinner with friends. I used it to note a Web link and key points from a phone call, and then noted a wine we enjoyed. One of the great benefits is that I can create and access the content on all my devices: my Mac computer, iPhone and iPad with syncing done automatically in the background.

The app is beautifully designed and simple to use. I can add a note nearly instantaneously. It’s an example of where less is more. Yet Day One has other features, including the ability to add an image and automatically note the location, date and time when the entry was made. It’s a perfect complement to your calendar app, which is more structured.

Day One syncs across multiple Apple devices using either iCloud or Dropbox. I ran into difficulty getting Apple’s still buggy iCloud to sync reliably, so I used Dropbox, which worked perfectly. Day One cost $4.99 for the iPhone/iPad app and $9.99 for the MacOS version. It’s worth every penny for the peace of mind in being able to keep track of those random notes. (dayoneapp.com).

UberConference: UberConference is the best way I’ve found to set up and make free conference calls. It recently has gone through a major upgrade that simplifies its interface and makes it even easier to use. Simply open the Web page and choose the option of setting up a call now or later. To set up a future call, select the date and time, add the participants’ email (or import them from your contacts), and everyone will be automatically notified. It can add the event to your calendar and notify the participants when it’s time to call in, and they do not need to have the software. When the call begins, as the organizer, you can view on the computer screen who has arrived and who is talking; no more taking a poll to see who’s on the line. When the call is completed you’ll get a summary of the call, including how long each of the participants talked.

UberConference finally found a way to eliminate using a PIN for its Pro account members, something that’s a pain to do, often requiring you to write it down to have it available while dialing. Instead, the company provides Pro users their own local 10-digit phone number that they use to call in to connect. That number remains the same for all of the phone conferences you initiate.

For now, UberConference requires you to set up the call on its website, but will soon roll out apps for Android and iPhone that will let you create the conference from your smartphone.

The free version has a wealth of features and can conference up to 10 people at once. The Pro version that costs $10 per month not only eliminates PINs, but works for up to 100, provides free international access and will call you when the meeting starts.

UberConference was developed by Craig Walker, who previously founded Grand Central, the service that provides us a single phone number to ring multiple phones. Grand Central was bought by Google and renamed GoogleVoice. (uberconference.com).

Sunrise Calendar: Sunrise is a free alternative calendar to iCal and Google calendar. It’s available as an app for iPhone, iPad and Android phones. It adds lots of useful information to the calendar and individual appointments, including birthdays, email, Facebook and LinkedIn links, and other contextual information. To get the most out of Sunrise, you first need to authorize it to connect to your Google, iCloud, contacts, LinkedIn and Facebook accounts, where it accesses pertinent information, such as birthdays, and email addresses.

When you click on a conference call or meeting, you’ll see images of the meeting participants with their email addresses. If you include an address with an appointment, it will display a map and link directions. When a birthday appears on the calendar, you can tap on it and post a message directly to Facebook. Essentially it anticipates the useful information you might need and provides actionable icons in anticipation of what you might want to do next.

I tested the versions for the iPad and iPhone, and while it looks much like the native calendar apps, it currently offers fewer views and does not yet have a search function. I also noticed that my travel events from TripIt did not appear. The company said to expect these additions soon. Otherwise, it’s a great alternative to your regular calendar, and doesn’t preclude you from using both. (sunrise.am)

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