Each year or two there’s one new camera that stands out as special, particularly in the compact-to-pocket-size category. In 2012 it was the Sony RX100 that created a big sensation for packaging a large sensor into a tiny pocketable camera. At $699, it was considerably more expensive than other pocket cameras, but because its image quality set a new standard for pocket cameras, it became a huge success. Now there’s a new camera that’s even better.

I’ve been trying out the new Leica D-Lux 109, very similar to the Panasonic Lumix LX100. While not as small as the Sony, it’s small enough to fit in a coat pocket or small purse. It uses a much larger 13-megapixel sensor and a terrific Leica f/1.7 25mm to 75mm zoom lens, capable of shooting in the dimmest light.

The result is a camera that takes noticeably sharper images than any camera in its class and works in very low light conditions, even candlelight. That’s not only because of the sensor, but also because of the maximum aperture of f/1.7 – 2.8, the largest ever used on a compact camera.

The camera is a partnership between Panasonic, which designed the camera, and Leica, which developed the lens. The difference between each company’s version is mostly cosmetic.

Leica eliminates the built-in handgrip and textured surface of the Lumix for a smoothly finished flat black aluminum body. The Lumix costs $800 and the Leica costs $1,100. The Leica comes with a three-year warranty, instead of one, and a free copy of Lightroom software, worth about two-hundred dollars.

One of the unusual features for a camera this small is its built-in high-resolution electronic viewfinder, which works particularly well in both low-light and in bright sun, where the 3-inch LCD display becomes washed out.

In fact, I found that I much preferred using the viewfinder all the time, because I could hold the camera against my face for steadier shots. I wear glasses and was able to adjust the viewfinder for my vision and had no problem seeing the full view. The viewfinder turns on automatically and turns off the LCD when you put it up to your eye.

Like many people, I have missed the optical viewfinders on compact cameras, and found this electronic viewfinder to be even better.

While most cameras provide great results under normal lighting conditions, the more costly cameras do better under extreme conditions. This camera goes beyond other compact cameras and minimizes the need for flash. You can actually take decent images up to ISO 25,600.

That’s good because one of the compromises with this camera is that there is no built-in flash. Instead, there is an add-on flash about the size of two sugar cubes that slides onto the hot shoe.

The controls are more like those on DSLR cameras than on typical point-and-shoot models. There’s a dial on the top to select shutter speed or set to A for automatic. Similarly, around the lens is a dial with aperture settings adjustable for f-number and an A for automatic. When both dials are at A, the exposure follows an automatic programmed mode.

A second dial on the top to the right of the shutter speed dial is for adjusting exposure compensation, making it simple to override the automatic setting by up to three stops in each direction. One minor complaint is that the dial rotated inadvertently on occasion when it didn’t lock into place.

The camera includes a wealth of other features, such as multiple focus and metering options, customizable buttons, built-in Wi-Fi and shake reduction.

There is a small sliding switch on the top of the lens to set the image’s aspect ratio to 3:2, 16:9, 4:3 and square. Lumix and D-Lux cameras have had this for several generations and it comes in handy for adjusting the aspect ratio based on the scene.

What I found most impressive was the movie mode that allowed shooting up to 30 frames per second and up to 4K resolution. That’s full high definition. I shot several movies at a luau on a recent Hawaiian vacation with illumination provided only by tiki torches, and the results were excellent — very sharp, well illuminated and very smooth motion. The sharpness was helped by being able to hold the camera against my face, using the viewfinder, and thereby avoiding camera unsteadiness.

On the vacation, my wife used the Sony RX100 and I used the Leica D-Lux 109. The images from the latter were generally sharper in general and better exposed in dim lighting. Of course, some of my wife’s images were better because there’s more to good images than just the equipment.

The camera comes with a battery, plug-in battery charger, neck strap, lens cap and tether. I’d recommend the optional lens cap that automatically opens when the lens extends out and closes when the lens withdraws.

Overall, this may just be the perfect travel camera: light enough to carry everywhere, versatile enough to cover a wide range of scenes and lighting conditions, with results that rival much larger cameras.


It’s now been 16 months since I leased my Chevy Volt. I’ve driven just less than 10,000 miles. This is the third report since I acquired a 2014 model in October 2013. Previous reviews were written in January 2014 after 60 days and in June 2014 after eight months.

Why so much coverage? Because the Volt has been considered one of the most innovative and risky undertakings from GM, a normally conservative U.S. company, and it had to endure unfounded criticism from Rep. Darrell Issa, R-San Diego, who claimed the car was unsafe and falsely attributed its tax rebates to the Obama administration. He was proven wrong on both counts.

I thought it was a really well-engineered car that reduced dependence on oil and bode well for rebuilding our domestic manufacturing. I said at the time that when it came time to turn in my BMW X3, I’d consider the Volt and I did. Now I love it like so many other owners.

The Volt continues to meet expectations and live up to its high owner ratings, still among the very best. It’s been trouble free and performs just as it did on Day One. No rattles and no mechanical or electrical trouble of any kind. I’ve taken it back to the dealer just once for its first scheduled service, an oil change, tire rotation and topping off the fluids.

I’ve encountered only one minor problem: the display that shows miles driven on electricity and gas for each trip, sometimes erroneously shows 0.2 miles driven on gas, when I start from a fully charged car. The dealer and GM attribute it to a software glitch and have been unable to fix it; I’ve learned to ignore it. No gas is consumed, according to other readings.

On one other occasion, the Bluetooth lost connection with my phone, and the phone function in the car froze, preventing it from entering the pairing process again. I had to reset the function by turning off the engine and opening the driver’s door for five minutes.

The occasional freezing of the console display that I encountered over the first several months has not reoccurred, likely fixed by a software upgrade I had last year at the dealer’s.

In my update eight months ago, I noted I was averaging 144 miles per gallon. In recent months I’ve made about a half-dozen trips to Los Angeles, so the proportion of the number of miles driven on gasoline has risen significantly, resulting in the overall mileage now being 116 mpg. I’ve bought 88 gallons of gas since I’ve owned the car.

The Volt’s first 40 miles for the 200-mile round trip is battery powered, but 160 miles is gasoline powered at 37 mpg. The saving grace is being able to use the carpool lanes most of the way, which typically shaves a half hour off the more than 2½-hour trip during rush hour. If I put more battery miles on it and have fewer long trips, the number will go up

My range per charge continues to hold steady between 37 and 41 miles all year round. San Diego has been a good location for owning a Volt because we don’t have low temperatures that can reduce the battery’s efficiency.

I’ve never used public charging stations away from home, because I’ve just not encountered them at a time or location when I could leave the car for a long enough time. A one-hour charge would provide about 10 miles of range, and 3½ hours a full charge. I have charged the car while visiting various companies during meetings, using their chargers. I find many private businesses have added chargers for their employees.

On one occasion I parked my car at Wally Park at LAX, while traveling to China. They offered to charge the car while I was away. Surprisingly, they charged $10, which provided a full charge of 40 miles. I found this service overpriced, when $10 of gas provides 100 miles.

While I’ve encountered no issues with the car, I did have to replace my 240-volt wall charger due to a damaged cord in which the strain relief pulled out the nozzle. It was a model that GM had developed and sold through Bosch, a major manufacturer of car chargers.

The one-year warranty had expired several months previously, but with a little persuasion, Bosch was accommodating and replaced the entire charger. I paid $75 for re-installation, which was covered by the American Express Card’s extended warranty benefit.

I continue to be pleased with the Volt and love the fact that there’s never an issue of range anxiety, where I need to be concerned with running out of battery without finding a charger. Ultimately I’d prefer an electric car with a range of several hundred miles when they become more affordable and charging becomes more accessible. Tesla is making great strides on range and the availability of fast chargers, but its cost of more than $80,000 is way out of my range.

One of the other advantages of owning an electric or electric/gas car such as the Volt is that SDG&E provides lower rates for all my electricity. In my case, the rates have dropped by about $100 per month, more than offsetting the cost of electricity for charging the car.

In the next year or two, we can expect to see more and improved electric and electric/gasoline cars, including a newly designed Volt that’s more contemporary looking and has about a 50-mile range. Many of the new cars are also adding a built-in cellular wireless connection. The Volt has OnStar that connects to their service for assistance or emergencies. The service has been excellent; I often ask them to enter a destination into my GPS instead of typing it in.

A 2015 Volt fully equipped with forward-collision alert, rear camera, navigation, leather seats, lane-departure warning, cruise control, back-up camera, keyless entry, etc. costs about $39,000. Federal and state rebates of up to $9,000 are available.

Among all of the cars I’ve owned — including BMWs, Lexuses and Acuras — the Volt continues to be at the top of my list.


I’ve been poring over some of the new products I saw last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Here’s a selection among those that stand out and add to the use of your cellphone.

Reach79: I’ve been trying out a new phone case from Antenna79 for the iPhone 6 that’s designed to improve cellular performance. The case has a built-in antenna that works with the one in the phone to improve signal strength and transmission speeds. The intent is to reduce dropped calls and improve data speeds. The case in the antenna works passively, meaning there is no electrical connection with the phone.

The case works with the iPhone 6 version for AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, but not Sprint. The case is a matte black, hard-plastic shell that snaps onto the phone. It adds little bulk to the phone and is similar in size to most standard cases.

The gold-colored antenna element is sandwiched in the back of the case with a portion of it visible through a decorative grill on the back.

The name of the product, Reach79, refers to the number for gold in the periodic table. The company, originally called Pong Research, was founded in San Diego and makes cases designed to reduce radiation from the phone. Catterton, a private consumer-focused equity group from Greenwich, Conn., is the company’s major investor.

Reach79 case for iPhone 6. Courtesy photo

The case is designed to work best when the phone is held in your hand or against your head. CEO David Vigil, a 20-year veteran of Qualcomm, says it works best in areas of marginal signal strength.

I tried it using an iPhone 6 with Verizon service in about a half-dozen locations around San Diego. I used the free Ookla app (www.ookla.com) to test download and upload speeds with the case on and off, and with the phone up to my ear and in my hand, positioned to view the screen.

I was unable to draw any conclusive conclusions from this test. That’s likely because there are many other variables, including tower congestion, Internet traffic, environmental conditions and lack of repeatability. In fact, when I measured speeds several times in a row, first with the case on and then with the case off, I’d get differences in upload and download speeds that were often larger than the differences with the case on and off.

Anytime you tamper with the radiation patterns of a phone, it’s important that you don’t create new problems. The company has conducted extensive tests and says the phone meets all of the standards of the iPhone alone for the important measurement of SAR, the Specific Absorption Rate of RF energy in the body. In fact, they say it’s likely one of the most tested cases ever.

The company plans to offer optimized models tailored to particular carriers as well as models for other phones and other colors. The product costs $60 for the iPhone 6 and $70 for the iPhone 6 Plus.

Although my tests were inconclusive, this does not necessarily mean that the case does not work as designed. If you experience frequent dropped calls and slow Internet connections, it’s certainly worth a try to see if this helps.

Other cases and mounts: Over the past few months I’ve received a wide variety of sample cases, for the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Among them all, I prefer those with a front cover that protects the display, especially from scratches and damage to the coatings. Displays have coatings designed to reduce glare and smudges.

• The Tech21 Classic Shell with Cover case for iPhone 6 offers a combination of protection, lightness and minimal bulk. Cases from this British company use a patented material as a liner to absorb impact to the phone when dropped.

This new case is much like the hugely popular Frame case that’s been one of the Apple Stores’ best sellers. The difference is that it adds a thin hinged cover to protect the display, adding minimal bulk; calls can be made with the cover closed. $35 for the iPhone 6 and $45 for the iPhone 6 Plus. (www.tech21.com).

• Another great case is the BookBook for iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. It looks like a vintage leather book that can also be used as a stand. The phone snaps into a plastic case within the book and can be removed and used separately. $60, www.twelvesouth.com.

• When I’ve tried using my phone as a GPS, I’ve had trouble finding a way to mount it to the car, particularly when traveling and driving a rental car. I didn’t like the designs with a long arms and suction cup that sticks on the window: They’re too large to carry and not legal unless they’re attached to the corner of the windshield.

The best solution I’ve found is the Airframe, a small U-shaped device that’s tiny enough to fit in your pocket. It pushes onto an air-conditioner vent with a rubber nub that works with varying thickness vents oriented both vertically and horizontally. The frame expands to fit all brands of phones with displays of up to 6-inches (including the iPhone 6 Plus). Some phones even fit while in their case. $25, www.kenu.com and at Apple Stores.

• For a small, discreet mount that’s more permanent, Nite-Ize introduced at CES a mounting system called Steelie. It consists of a small steel ball that mounts to your dashboard using non-marring adhesive. A small magnetic disc sticks onto the back of your phone or case. The two connect with a firm click and allow a wide range of movement of the phone to position it just right. The disc is thin enough so as not to add much bulk to your phone.

There are several elements that can be added, such as a stand for your desk, a ball mount for your vent and a case with the magnetic disk built in. About $30 from www.niteize.com.

Are you torn between your old Blackberry and an iPhone? Typo offers a solution, the Typo keyboard and case. The keyboard looks much like a Blackberry thumb keyboard. (The original version looked so much like one that it was sued and had to recall their product). Typo adds ¾ inch to length and provides a very satisfactory type experience, almost as good as a Blackberry, although it doesn’t have all of the special Blackberry function keys and shortcuts, and the balance in the hand is not quite as good.

The Typo is backlit, runs off of a rechargeable battery, and connects to the phone using Bluetooth. It replaces the home button with a substitute key, but it frees up a lot more of the display. To get around the patent, the company modified the shape of their keys. $99 at typokeyboards.com.


If there’s one thing that U.S. companies should have learned by now it’s not to tamper with anyone’s ability to go online. The FCC’s proposal of considering a fast lane and slow lane, proposed by Comcast, resulted in 6 million email and phone complaints.

The FCC has learned its lesson and is now expected to propose regulating the Internet much as it does a public utility, treating the Internet like phone service. That will mean the idea of charging for faster speeds goes out the window, and we have real net neutrality.

Rarely has an issue been so universally supported by the public, which would be up in arms against any attempt to tamper with that access. Access is now as important as a phone line, not a luxury, but a necessity.

Now, tampering with how we access the Internet has become an issue.

Marriott, one of the largest hotel chains with more than 4,000 properties around the world, recently created a firestorm when it tried to prevent some of its guests from using their phone to connect via Wi-Fi.

In early 2013, the Gaylord Opryland Marriott in Nashville blocked the Wi-Fi connections of guests attending a conference in an effort to make them buy the hotel’s own Wi-Fi services for a whopping $250 to $1,000 per person. The blocking prevented guests from using the hotspots on their cellular phones to create connections to their computers.

Marriott said it was done to improve their guests’ security, an excuse that made little sense and brought them even more ridicule. But most saw it as the first step on a slippery slope that would eventually lead Marriott to block its customers’ Wi-Fi in their rooms, forcing them to pay Marriott’s daily connection fees.

To its credit, the FCC responded quickly, warning Marriott to never let this happen again and fining them $600,000. Under the FCC consent decree, Marriott is prohibited from blocking Wi-Fi at any of its properties. The company must also file a statement of compliance each quarter for the next three years.

“The Communications Act prohibits anyone from interfering with authorized radio communications, including Wi-Fi,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said. “Marriott’s request seeking the FCC’s blessing to block guests’ use of non-Marriott networks is contrary to this basic principle.”

“Consumers who purchase cellular data plans should be able to use them without fear that their personal Internet connection will be blocked by their hotel or conference center,” said Travis LeBlanc, FCC enforcement bureau chief.

Well, you’d think that Marriott would get the message and drop the idea. Instead, they dug themselves an even deeper hole. Along with their trade organization, the American Hospitality & Lodging Association, they petitioned the FCC to alter the Communications Act itself to let them block wireless access in their conference room areas.

They claimed once more that such a change was needed to prevent their guests from launching attacks against the hotel’s own network and steal other guest’s credit cards. But it’s actually easier to jeopardize security by allowing guests to use the hotel’s Wi-Fi then their own hot spot.

That action created more negative publicity, and Marriott faced protests from business travelers, including their elite members, and many companies in the high-tech industry, such as Motorola and Google.

Companies and individuals threatened to boycott Marriott. Some compared Marriott to Comcast, reputed to be the most hated company in America.

Marriott’s action also brought unwanted attention to a policy most travelers despise: paying from $13 to $15 a day for a Wi-Fi connection at their full-service hotels, while the hotel chains’ lower-cost properties offer it free. Even after paying the hotel’s Wi-Fi charge, the connection is barely faster than dial-up.

If all this seems like Groundhog Day, you probably remember how hotels once charged exorbitant rates to make phone calls from hotel rooms, even to toll-free numbers. The growth of cellphones put an end to those charges. Now cellphones with hotspots will put an end to Wi-Fi charges.

If Marriott failed to get the message, archrival Hyatt sent another one: Wi-Fi will now be free at all Hyatt Hotels. This is the future: free Internet access and access to a neutral Internet.


If you are considering buying a new iPhone for use on Verizon or AT&T, you might want to select the T-Mobile version instead, or a special new model that Apple has just introduced. I’ll explain why.

When buying a cellphone, we normally select a model designed specifically for our carrier of choice. Should we decide to change carriers, we’ll need to buy a new phone compatible with the new cellular company’s radio frequencies. The carriers have always liked this arrangement because we’ll be less likely to switch, even if we become dissatisfied with their service or rates.

But if your phone could work on another carrier, it normally comes locked, preventing it from being used on compatible carriers you might find in the United States or overseas. You can request the carrier to unlock your phone, but they usually require several months of use and that it be fully paid up.

Now that’s all changed. The new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus for T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are identical phones and capable of being used on each other’s networks.

Unlike the phones from Verizon and AT&T, only the T-Mobile version comes unlocked if it’s bought from Apple, which allows a SIM card from any of the three carriers to work on their respective networks.

It’s no more expensive to do this. The T-Mobile iPhone 6 costs $649 with 64 GB memory, the same as the other carriers’ locked phones. The iPhone 6 Plus costs $100 more.

Why is this important? If you can use one phone on all the carriers, you now have the ability to switch carriers without needing to buy a new phone. You can buy local SIM cards while traveling, and change carriers if you move to an area where your current carrier has poor reception.

It’s also important because some carriers and reseller offer monthly plans without commitments. With an unlocked iPhone, you can change carriers at will, depending on the best rates; the carriers cannot lock you in. If you travel overseas, you can even get a T-Mobile SIM card to use their unlimited data and 20 cents per minute international rates for just a short time.

The carriers don’t publicize this, and in fact, prefer we don’t know. They still are selling what appear to be unique models, but the uniqueness is simply the software that locks the phone and provides some of the carrier’s apps.

So for those who want to maintain flexibility with plans and be able to use the phone outside the country, buy the T-Mobile version of the iPhone 6 (A1549) or the iPhone 6 Plus (A1522) from Apple’s store or from their website. If you purchase it from T-Mobile it comes locked.

If this isn’t confusing enough, Apple has just begun selling its own SIM-free unlocked iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, models A1586 and A1524.

The A1586 supports a few more LTE bands than the A1549, but is nearly the same. The main difference is it doesn’t come with software from any of the carriers; it’s carrier-agnostic. The phone sells for the same price: $649 and $749 for a 6 or 6 Plus with 64 GB memory. This phone is an equally good choice as the unlocked T-Mobile version.

In short, buy these phones from Apple if you want the ability to switch carriers if a better deal comes along and use any SIM card from anywhere in the world:

Slowly but surely, we are gaining our freedom from the carrier’s restrictive policies meant to limit our flexibility and freedom of choice.

What about Android phones? I checked two of the most popular models, the HTC One (M8) and the Samsung Galaxy S5. They each offer carrier-specific models and no one-model-fits-all version.


One of the major themes at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was the Internet of Things or IoT. Many of the speakers — including CEOs of major corporations, industry analysts and investors — discussed the topic.

IoT refers to devices and home appliances wirelessly connected to the Internet, the cloud or to each other that provide new capabilities. And from all of the discussions, many think it’s destined to be the next big thing in consumer tech.

With such connectivity, including cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, devices can be smarter and behave differently as a result of external information or events. They can react based on communications from the cloud, the user or other devices, automating things that are now done manually.

For example, the Nest thermostat reacts to outside weather conditions, which it learns from being connected to the Internet, and detects activity levels in the home, lowering the temperature when no one is there.

While IoT offers great promise, it is also something that has the potential to make our lives more complicated if we are not careful. Clearly, there are some things we do that could benefit by this, but many of these will not make a huge difference, and some will be downright annoying.

One idea mentioned at CES was a device that turns off your TV and lights when your fitness tracker detects that you have fallen asleep. While it sounds innocuous and maybe even useful, can you imagine setting it up? You need to connect your fitness tracker, the TV and lights to the cloud or to a hub in the home. Each likely requires an app, and you need to set up your preferences. And it’s probable that each item, made by different companies, won’t work well together.

We already have devices that turn the lights on when we turn into our driveway or enter a room, and turn them off when leaving. But if we’re simply reading on the couch when the lights go out due to a low level of activity, we then must wave our hands to turn them back on. If something like this cannot be done perfectly, how well can more complicated activities be done?

The area of health offers great potential. New sensors that monitor vital signs that can alert us or our doctor could be life-saving. Dr. Brian Alman of Encinitas, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, imagines emotional-mental-behavioral solutions for health sensors detecting high stress where he can deliver a short phone message or video to the user, much like a personal coach.

The challenge is to make these devices easy to set up and maintenance free.

As more devices become connected, imagine trying to troubleshoot a problem. Was the alert message on my phone triggered by the heart sensor on my watch, the sleep sensor in my bed, or the activity sensor on my treadmill?

The CEO of Samsung says that all their products — including humidifiers — will have wireless connectivity. I’m sure he’s motivated by using IoT as an opportunity to sell us something extra and encourage us to buy only Samsung products so they can talk to each other.

We are already interrupted hundreds of times each day, if we allow it. Emails, messaging, phone calls and so on. Do we need more interruptions from our clothes dryer, frying pan or coffeepot? We don’t want to be a slave to inanimate objects. It’s important not to be awed by the technology, and focus instead on specific applications. Is the benefit worth the overhead?

These are some the challenges that need to be overcome:

• Standards: Every company will have its own standards and it will take years to sort this out so products from different companies can talk to each other. Just think of the difficulty now in setting up a universal remote control. While there are some industry standards evolving, we’ll likely buy a complete solution from a single company.

• Setup: It will be difficult setting up so many things with different interfaces and different functionalities. Some of us still have problems getting a Wi-Fi connection in our home.

• Privacy: With all these devices and sensors connected to the cloud, some enterprising startup will figure a way to provide us with free devices and services for sharing all of our home and health data and allowing them to sell it to advertisers.

You’ll hear lots about IoT in 2015. Some of it will offer amazing new opportunities. But remember, just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be!


I’ve tried and even paid for wine apps that promised to help me select a great bottle or glass of wine, yet have been consistently disappointed. The Wine Spectator app, for example, charges $5 per month to access its wine ratings, but more often than not a search for a particular wine brings up a not-found message. Other apps let you take a picture of the label to access a review, but the results are much the same: wine not found.

But now that’s all changed. I’ve been trying an app called Vivino (www.vivino.com), and have been delighted and amazed at how well it works. The app was created in Copenhagen in 2011 and Vivino now has an office in San Francisco with just five employees. It’s free for both the iPhone and Android phones and works the same way on each.

You start by taking a picture of a wine label that’s sent to Vivino. A few seconds later, a scrollable page opens with information about the wine, including a picture of the label, a 1 to 5 rating from other users who have rated it, average price, detailed reviews, a comparison with other vintages and recommended food pairings. You can also enter your own review and add notes for future reference.

I tried the app on about 20 different bottles; 16 were identified immediately and four required a delay for manual matching. Three of the four came back in a few minutes, and one never did (a Vosne Romanee). My test included a wide variety of wines from around the world and a couple of small family wineries.

What makes Vivino stand apart from other wine apps is the number of users — 8 million who have scanned in and reviewed 100 million bottles of wine. Of these 100 million reviews, there are 5 million unique wines in the database.

I spoke with Steven Favrot, Vivino’s vice president of marketing, who said their users are increasing faster than any other wine app — 15,000 to 20,000 per day. With so many users — he estimates 20 times more than any other app — there’s a high likelihood that many users have reviewed the wine you’re checking. Typically, there were as many as 10 or more ratings, making the results more meaningful.

If you ever perused a wine list in a restaurant trying to decide which wine to order, a second feature in this app can help you choose. Take a picture of a restaurant’s wine list and in a few seconds, that image will come back with ratings superimposed next to each wine on the list. That solves the dilemma of trying to find a wine with a high rating at an affordable price. This feature also worked for me when I took a picture of a wine list off my computer screen.

With that said, it’s likely you can get more nuanced opinions from a fine restaurant’s sommelier who’s much more familiar with the selections on the wine list or, if listed, from a publication such as Wine Spectator, where the tasting is done by professionals.

In fact, Vivino’s newly announced Premium version will add these reviews. For $5 a month or $49.95 per year, you can have them deliver a biweekly Wine Buying Guide. The guide tailors the report to your needs and includes access to up-to-date pricing from more than 50,000 merchants worldwide through Wine Searcher. It also adds expert wine reviews from Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and so on, and helps you keep track of your wine cellar.

Vivino is a perfect example of the value of crowdsourcing, where a large population of users benefits each member, much as Amazon does for product reviews and Waze does for traffic conditions. Based on my use, Vivino improves the odds of choosing a wine of your liking and price point, whether in a restaurant or in a wine store. But don’t ignore recommendations from a store’s employees, restaurant’s sommeliers and other experts.


I spent last week in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) along with 170,000 others, making this the biggest show ever. Tens of thousands of new products were displayed by 3,600 exhibitors spread over 2.2 million square feet of exhibit space, primarily at two huge convention centers, Las Vegas Convention Center and the Sands.

Of course, it’s not possible to see everything, even if you had a couple of months, let alone a few days. Moving from one center to another, about a mile apart, took about an hour, counting wait lines for the taxi and bumper-to-bumper traffic. In speaking with many of the attendees, we realized that the best way to see CES is to stay home and follow the gadget blogs on the Internet, such as The Verge and Engadget.

Nevertheless, by being there, it’s possible to get a flavor of the consumer electronics industry. There was great excitement and optimism, buoyed by the strong economy as well as the creativity and innovation from so many of the small startups exhibiting. It seemed like a high-tech gold rush.

Checking out the new products from these small startups is much more interesting than seeing more TVs, phones, routers and computers from the large multinational corporations.

But I noticed great naiveté in some of these entrepreneurs, many from Europe and Asia. So many think that reaching success consists of exhibiting at CES, running a Kickstarter campaign, going to China to build the product, then selling it on Amazon. As a result, many of these companies will be gone next year, because they fail to have adequate capital to promote and distribute their products, which often costs more than everything that came before.

As for new products, I found hundreds of smartwatches and bracelets that can send you reminders or measure your pulse, but few that are distinguishable from each other.

But as with other categories, there are outlier products that try to be different. Hyundai introduced a smartwatch that lets you unlock your door or start your engine with the press of a button. Why this is better than a key fob remains a mystery. It seems to be a silly idea, but you’ll likely see all their competitors jump on board mindlessly.

3-D printers were in abundance; some looked like sophisticated toys that let your kids create 3-D objects of designs they create on the computer. One interesting application being used by one company measures you for custom ear molds for earbuds and builds them on the spot using a 3-D printer.

A Parrott Mini Drone hovers at the Consumer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas. Photo: Bloomberg News

Drones were in plentiful supply from dozens of companies. They come in all sizes, all remotely controlled. Most were designed either as a toy or, in a few cases, with a camera to create aerial photos. This is a burgeoning category that was barely visible at last year’s CES. But pity the person who wants to buy one. They are all so similar to one another that I don’t know how anyone could decide which one to choose.

Accessories were everywhere with one huge hall devoted just to those for Apple products. Typo, a company begun by “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest, showed a $100 iPhone 6 case with a Blackberry-like keyboard extending from the bottom. There were many battery cases for the new iPhone 6, including a clever design from Esorun with a built-in stand for $70.

Transportation was another big category here; everything from Toyota’s hydrogen car to motorized skateboards and roller skates. While walking down one aisle, an attractive model whizzed by me riding a $995 Hovertrax, a small platform with wheels at each end that’s controlled by how she moved. It looked a little dangerous, zipping around at 8 mph with nothing to hold on to.

Solowheel demonstrated its Hovertrax, a small platform with wheels at each end that’s controlled by the movement of the rider last week at CES in Las Vegas. Photo: Bloomberg News

The Hovertrax, originally a Kickstarter project, is controlled much like a Segway, by leaning forward to go forward, leaning back to go backward, and standing straight up to stop. Unlike the Segway this is extremely lightweight and can be carried in one hand. A few minutes later, I passed two other booths with similar products.

Many automotive companies had some of their new models with new tech capabilities on display. Primary among them were always-on connectivity to the Web using a built-in cellular device, most with a monthly fee to Verizon or AT&T.

There was much discussion of self-driving vehicles, which technically are feasible, but still need government approval. Mercedes showed a concept car with a living room-like interior and no visible controls. Harman, which makes many of the audio systems for automotive companies, showed technology that allows some passengers to listen to music while others can make a call within a cone of silence. I don’t know if they can do the opposite — eliminate the noise of screaming kids.

Mercedes-Benz showed a driverless F 015 concept car with a living room-like interior and no visible controls last week at CES in Las Vegas. Photo: Bloomberg News

Audio was another big category with hundreds of new headphones, both ear buds and over-the-ear models. In the low to midprice range, the new B&O headphones sounded remarkably good. And at the top end, Audeze, known for making one the best headphones at any price, introduced a lower-cost model, the EL-8. Its price was not announced, but it should be about one-third of its top-of-the-line $1,800 model. (audeze.com)

Neil Young and Sony each introduced their high-resolution audio players, Neil’s Pono player costs $399 and Sony’s costs $1,149. Both are poised to take advantage of the burgeoning interest in high-quality audio. (Disclaimer: I led the team that developed the Pono player.)

Internet of Things is a new industry term referring to devices perpetually connected to the Internet, but it’s being taken to the extreme with Samsung’s president saying that in five years everything they make will have a connection, including humidifiers and dryers. It’s hard enough now to stay connected, but imagine needing to do this with hundreds of devices in your home — and needing to replace batteries on so many devices!

Ooma, the maker of Internet phones, announced that it will now connect with a Nest thermostat and smoke detector, and its phone will call you when the alarm goes off, wherever you are. This is an example of the efforts of many companies to create the connected home. Even a window company joined the craze, building sensors into its products.

Avi-on, a small startup, showed a light switch that can be installed with no wires, using Bluetooth and its wireless mesh technology. It lets you rewire your house with no wires, locating a light switch anywhere you want. (avi-on.com)

San Diego-based Ampl Labs displayed its SmartBackpack, a sleek gray backpack that charges your gadgets stored inside its pockets. The case contains a 5000mAh battery that can charge your phone, tablet, headphone and other accessories using the USB connectors that are in each of the pockets. An optional module with an inverter and AC outlet lets you charge a laptop as well. (ampl-labs.com)

And there were some innovative products for the kitchen. Drop’s Connected Scale works with its Drop Kitchen app to take you through recipes, ensuring you add the proper amount of ingredients as you adjust for the number of servings. ($99, getdrop.com).

The Anova Precision Cooker at $179 lets you turn any pot into a sous-vide cooker, a method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags in a water bath. This popular product wirelessly connects to your smartphone, allowing you to cook your meal with the touch of a button.

I’m now ready to return home, with a bag of brochures, a few giveaway samples, and the smoke-infused clothes from walking through the casinos. Next year I hope to follow CES on the blogs, instead.

One word of advice to CEA, the consumer association that runs CES: If you’re putting on a high-tech show, how about giving your attendees technology tools that work. CES’ app was bug-ridden and didn’t accept the password you registered with. You could click on a link, asking to chat for help, but the 70-minute wait time was even longer than most cab lines. And one of the biggest issues of CES — long, long cab lines — could have been alleviated with Uber, today’s technology solution but, not surprisingly, it’s banned in Nevada.


Prepare yourself for the onslaught of smartwatches. Not since the introduction of the tablet has there been so much excitement and promise of a new product category.

As often happens, there will be uncertainty and skepticism about how successful the category will be. Some pundits will tell you it’s the greatest invention since the mechanical watch; others will proclaim it’s destined to fail.

Will people shed their conventional watches? Will a smartwatch really offer anything useful? Do we now need another device that does many of the things that our phone already does? Will we tolerate needing to frequently charge our watch? Can I read the tiny display?

The premise of the smartwatch is to add a display to your wrist to provide timely information at a glance without pulling out your smartphone. Aided by its Bluetooth connection to your smartphone. It can display messages and other information from your phone, provide directions and tell you about a restaurant nearby. It can be used as a remote control for your phone’s music player, as well as a way to answer and hang up your phone. Most can monitor your activity and some can measure your pulse. Others can transcribe messages and send canned replies. And yes, they can also display the time.

Clearly, the leader in this category will be Apple because of its technical and design prowess in both hardware and software and its huge billion-dollar commitment. As with the iPad, Apple will gain huge support from the developer community. And the Apple watch will have two things no other smartwatch has: It will be beautiful and fun to use.

Apple thinks of the watch in much the same way as the iPad: It’s a new platform with a new operating system that will attract tens of thousands of developers to create apps that do things we can barely imagine.

The big question is whether these watches will be able to provide enough value for us to wear one every day and to replace our conventional timepiece. For those who don’t wear watches, will they start now?

Apple is not the first one with a smartwatch nor will it be the least expensive. When its line of watches is introduced in a few weeks, the cost is expected to be from $300 to several thousand dollars, depending on the case material and the band

But there already are products on the market that cost as little as $100 from Pebble, LG, Samsung, Motorola, HP and others. I’ve been trying two of them to get familiar with the category and provide a preview of what we can expect.

Smartwatches from Pebble. Courtesy photo

The Pebble Watch is one of the first smartwatches, initially funded from a successful Kickstarter campaign. It’s now in its second generation with new steel versions. Close to a half-million units have sold to date, and a strong developer community has created hundreds of apps for the Pebble. I tested the steel version ($199), which works the same as the plastic ones ($99). I used it with my iPhone 6, but it also works equally well with Android phones.

The Pebble is one of the smallest smartwatches, about the size of a normal men’s watch, and is designed to be worn by both men and women. It uses a black-and-white reflective e-ink display (similar to what’s used on eBook readers) rather than color; this makes it less glitzy, but more practical, giving it a battery life of about five days before needing to be recharged.

Its software is list driven; you scroll up and down using 2 buttons, and then select an item from the list using a third. A fourth button serves as a back button. I found it easy and intuitive to use.

The Pebble has basic built-in functionality, including a number of watch faces, notifications from your phone when messages arrive, buttons to pick up and hang up your phone, and buttons to control your music.

There are additional apps that can be added to the watch, such as Evernote, Yelp, Misfit and a connection to Map My Ride. These mini-apps provide access to snippets of information, with some requiring the app to be installed on your phone. One of the coolest is NavMe, a free app that displays next-turn directions augmented with a vibration when it’s time to make a turn.

Overall, the Pebble worked well and provided a good balance between size and function. It reminded me of the early Palm handhelds, smartly balancing cost, size, function and ease of use. While somewhat plain looking, it’s much smaller and more wearable than other smartwatches currently available. That feature alone makes it stand apart from the competition. It also has an app store with many free selections.

I’ve also been trying the LG G watch, running Google’s Wear platform, designed to work with Android phones. The G is representative of Google’s approach to smartwatches, being introduced from several companies. The watch retails for $239 and is available for less than $200. I tested it using an HTC M8 Android phone. (It was lent to me by AT&T, which sells it in their stores.)

The G has a larger color LCD display with touch capability as well as voice recognition. As a result, the watch is very large, more than 50 percent larger than the Pebble, and needs to be recharged every day or two.

The LG G interface uses cards that appear on the display and can be swiped away to dismiss, or tapped and swiped to get more information. A double tap displays “Go Google” in which you can speak commands to the watch. The higher resolution color backlit display looks better than the Pebble’s display, but it adds little additional functionality, and the cost is the need to recharge much more frequently, and for the dial to dim to reduce power.

The voice recognition was quite good on the G. I could dictate a message or make a request and it usually got it right the first time. Clearly the G is more advanced than the Pebble, but its size made it unwieldy and less likely that I would wear it.

The bigger question is whether a smartwatch is something that helps us in our daily lives or is just another distraction. Once the novelty wore off, I found it not to be very useful for reading messages or checking email; its value was knowing that you received something and from whom.

With the notification on, it was always vibrating, and I was unable to discern between what was important and what was not. The small display lets me see the sender and a few words of the message, but nothing more. I found the watches to be more useful for monitoring exercise, providing directions, receiving a message of a flight delay and seeing who is calling.

Smartwatches will bring us information with a glance at the wrist, but it’s likely to create new distractions and isolate us even more from those around us. Many of us have been accused of being rude by checking our smartphones at the dinner table. Now it’s even easier to be rude, by constantly looking at our wrists.

For now I’m not convinced it’s a necessity, just another way to access what we can do with our phones. But many said the same about the iPad and were wrong. What made the difference was the developer community coming up with new functionality that few ever envisioned.

If a smartwatch still seems to be something you want to try, the Pebble is a good way to begin for $100. The alternative is to wait for the Apple watch, probably near the end of the month, and learn along with all of us just how useful it can be.

As for those who like their mechanical watches, Montblanc is introducing something that offer both in one device. The new Montblanc Timewalker Urban Speed collection of timepieces offers an optional e-Strap, a leather watchband with electronic module that offers tracking and alerts for $400.


What can we expect in the world of consumer technology in 2015? Here’s my annual assessment and predictions.

Looking back over 2014, we saw some real progress in reducing our energy dependence through new technology, and we’ll see even more in 2015. One big advance, well under the radar, has been the plummeting cost of energy-efficient LED light bulbs that require about one-eighth the power of incandescent lighting. A 60-watt equivalent bulb that cost $40 to $60 a year or two ago, now costs just $8, and will hit $5 next year.

Sales of electric and hybrid cars grew modestly for most companies, but doubled for Tesla. The company is not only selling cars around the world, but also building the largest battery plant in the United States and installing hundreds of charging stations around the country, a great example of how new jobs are being created through green energy. Other automotive trends we’ll see in 2015 are self-driving cars and always-on Internet connections in new cars.

Home automation is still something many talk about, but few seem to care about. Turning our lights on or being notified on our iPhone when the laundry or toast is done hasn’t caught on and won’t next year. The promise of home automation using devices such as the Nest thermostat (now owned by Google) will face increasing resistance because we just don’t want Google monitoring our activities inside our homes.

The trust issue — something Google, Facebook and others have taken for granted — will not go away. These companies keep apologizing for security breeches, but then come up with new ways to learn more about us.

Home networking of music will grow rapidly in 2015. Sonos’ music system, which lets you play music, radio stations or almost anything throughout your home, saw its sales accelerate this year. Expect to see other companies jump into this area, including Apple. Or might Apple buy Sonos?

Music is a hot topic, with new streaming services improving from less than MP3 quality to CD quality. But they all pale in comparison to Neil Young’s Pono player and its high-resolution music store that will roll out at next week’s CES show in Las Vegas.

Once people experience it, it will be hard to go back. (Disclosure: I oversaw the design, development and manufacturing of the Pono music player). It’s part of the growing trend of people wanting authenticity and dealing directly with the artist, whether it’s with the musician, the farmer, the chef or other artisans.

2015 will see little growth in tablets in the consumer space, resulting in some modest price reductions from Apple. It’s hard to improve on the current models; users are content to keep them for many years. So expect Apple to expand into business with its new IBM alliance, which will bring a new 12-inch iPad.

Internet security was a big issue in 2014, and it will be bigger in 2015. With credit card information stolen from Target, Home Depot, Staples and other retailers, Chip and PIN cards will finally roll out next year, years behind the rest of the world. While there’s no excuse for those who commit cyberattacks, corporations make it easier by leaving many of their doors unlocked, and it will be worse in 2015.

The best answer to protect our cards, however, is Apple Pay, designed to provide more security by not providing the merchant with our personal information or credit card numbers. Expect its adoption to soar in 2015.

Companies such as CVS, which refuse to use Apple Pay in order to use an industry-sponsored payment scheme that accesses our personal information for advertising, will find themselves on the wrong side of the future for putting their own selfish interests ahead of their customers.

Companies still fail to take security seriously. Sony, which had ample warning of its lax security, paid a dear price, and I predict it will cost their co-CEOs their jobs.

Network neutrality will continue to be a hot topic in 2015. Because of the huge outcry of citizens, the pay for speed schemes of Verizon and Comcast will fail to get approval. Comcast will continue to be one of the most hated companies in 2015, particularly after its new campaign of supporting net neutrality is exposed. Really? No, it just changed the definition of what net neutrality is.

T-Mobile will continue taking customers away from the other carriers by exposing the anti-consumer policies of their competition and offering services that are easy to understand and are not punitive. For example, the latest plan eliminates the need to guess data usage in advance and pay for what’s not used, and pay penalties if we guess wrong.

The hot product category for 2015 will be the smartwatch. The Apple Watch will go on sale in late January, and will be met with considerable success. If you think you can’t get away from your devices now, the smartwatch will be even more intrusive. It vibrates when new messages arrive, when an appointment is about to begin and when you need to get up and exercise.

3-D printers, used by engineers for prototyping new products and making one-up products such as an arm cast, will see new products for home use from major companies such as HP or Epson. What we do with them is another question. The business model is much like that of printers: Sell a low-cost device with costly consumables — in this case, the material for building the models.

Amazon will continue to dominate online shopping. But its aggressiveness and anti-competitive behavior will make its dealings with publishers seem like child’s play. Amazon will shut down merchants with their own stores on its site for no reason other than that it’s hurting their own business. Expect to see more products with the Amazon expansion of their brands and even shorter delivery times. Their goal: Just think about buying a product and it will appear at your doorstep.

Apple will grow to over $200 billion in sales, propelled by Apple Pay, smartwatches and several new categories of products, including audio hardware under the Beats brand. Once the Apple Watch is established, look for a device with a display size falling between the watch and a phone. Pretty much every other size is covered.

Samsung will continue to lose money in its consumer phones and tablets, fighting the emergence of Xiaomi and Huawei, which are making Google phones for half the price. Samsung will see similar competition in their TV business with lower-cost products from HiSense, TCL, and other Chinese brands. As a result, Samsung and Apple will make amends and the companies will renew their supplier relationship and settle all litigation.

High-visibility companies that will struggle to be relevant or be purchased in 2015 will include Fitbit, and Jawbone, all facing pressure from Apple, whose goal is “to own our wrist.”

Microsoft will introduce Windows 10, which will be a marked improvement over 8.1. It will make a major push to dislodge the $200 Google Chromebook with a similarly priced notebook computer. Google will then offer Chromebooks for $99. Yahoo will merge into another company, such as AOL, or just fade away into irrelevancy.

Last, I wish all readers the best of success and good health in 2015. That reminds me of one more trend in 2015: devices to monitor our health and connected software to give us advice on how to be healthier. That’s a good projection to finish up with: one that most of us can support.