The auto industry has strived to build technology into its cars to manage navigation, the phone and entertainment. Most in-car systems in use now are designed in-house or by large original equipment manufacturer suppliers to the industry, such as Denso.

The challenge for the auto companies is to advance their in-auto capabilities fast enough to match those of our smartphones, and to incorporate all their new services, such as streaming music, Internet radio, local search and much more. This opportunity has attracted Apple and Google to develop in-car systems based around their experiencs with their smartphones.

Ultimately, they want to replace the automobile’s system with their own, but that will take years. As a first step, they’re offering systems that sit on top of the car’s interface, much like an app. That leaves it to the user to choose whether to use the auto company’s built-in system or switch to an Apple or Google system.

Google’s Android Auto is the first to become available; Apple’s Car Play is coming later this summer. I’ve been trying out Android Auto on the first car to incorporate it, the Hyundai Sonata, a beautiful new model incorporating Hyundai’s next generation of sleek styling.

Android Auto is designed to work with an Android phone running Android 5.0 or later, something not all phone brands have made available. For my tests, I used a Motorola X phone supplied by Hyundai.

To set it up, download the Android Auto app on the phone, along with other apps that work with Auto, such as Play Music, Spotify, Pocket Casts and iHeartRadio.

The phone is plugged into the USB port and paired with the car’s Bluetooth. Once that’s done, the phone can be tucked away, because it’s only used for connecting to the Internet. Surprisingly, the phone is not adequately charged through this port, so the battery dies over time.

When the phone is connected by USB and Bluetooth to the car, the Android Auto icon is activated on the car’s display. Touching that icon brings up Android Auto, You can toggle between the two operating systems by touching the Auto icon on the car display.

Android Auto offers a few apps that play streaming music and Internet radio, as well as displaying Google Maps and managing your cellphone. You’ll also want to use Google’s voice interface because the buttons for making selections are severely limited on these apps, apparently in the name of safety.

In this Android Auto mode, your phone allows apps to communicate to the Internet. Most of your apps won’t appear on the car’s display, only those that are designed for Auto and meet Google’s rules for minimizing distractions — so forget email or text messages. I was surprised by how few apps are available and how limited most of them are. For example, the Google Maps phone app offers tremendous capabilities that include detailed maps of both outdoors and indoors around shopping centers, callouts for local dining and much more.  In contrast, Google Maps on the Android Auto is just a shadow of the Google Maps we know and love. There’s a minimum of detail and limited customization. And it sometimes got its directions wrong.

Navigating to a supermarket, it took me to a highway entrance ramp 50 feet from the store’s parking lot. It pales in comparison with Hyundai’s own excellent GPS system, which, for example, lets you enter whether you avoid tolls or use the HOV lane or FasTrack One nice feature is the Google dashboard screen that lists personal activities, past destinations and appointments that pop up on a scrollable list, much like Google Now on the phone. However, you cannot swipe the messages to delete them and they are so large that you can only see a few at a time. I did like the ability to listen to radio stations using the iHeartRadio app.

I found using Android Auto to be limiting and often switched to Hyundai’s own system, which also includes its own unique set of controls for Sirius/XM, climate settings, and wireless calling. So expect to be shifting back and forth much like using Windows 8 where you need to switch between two different interfaces.

Android Auto is far from a polished product. Since this is just the first generation, it will improve. The good news is that it’s all updatable on your phone.

And it’s understandable that the auto companies want to include Android Auto and Apple Car Play to give their customers a way to use their phones and an alternative to using the phones by themselves, which can be dangerous. But in this case more is less, and they are not making it easier for the customer.

Just consider it a work in progress.


I’ve been trying out a product that’s designed to improve cell service, both data and voice, in the home. It’s called the Cel-Fi Duo Signal Booster from Nextivity, a San Diego-based technology company.

I’m using the model designed for T-Mobile cellular phones. A second version is available for AT&T phones. While there are not yet models for Verizon or Sprint, the company produces models that work with 170 carriers around the world.

I began as a skeptic because I’ve tried so many products over the years that claim to boost cellular reception, but rarely did they work well enough to detect any improvement. But this product is different. It really works and its performance exceeded all expectations.

The Cel-Fi consists of two boxes that stand on end, each about the size of a small router. The concept is to locate one of the boxes, called the Network Unit, in the home where the signal strength is the strongest, and the other box, called the Coverage Unit, where the signal is the weakest.

In operation, the Network Unit searches for cellular signals from your carrier’s three nearby cellular base stations, and figures out which one is the best for noise characteristics and has the least signal loss, all in less than 20 milliseconds. It then sends that cellular signal over a wireless frequency, similar to Wi-Fi, to the Coverage Unit, which then rebroadcasts that cellular signal from the weakest area of the home.

The company notes that Cel-Fi is the only consumer booster with up to 100 decibels of gain approved by the FCC, allowing one system to cover up to 13,000 square feet, or a two-story home about 100 by 60 feet in size.

Like most wireless specs, the coverage depends on the number of walls and other construction factors that may reduce the signal’s penetration. Hey, I’d be happy if it would work over an area of 2,500 square feet.

My home is a one-story ranch with a U-shaped layout. At one end of the U is large open living room with floor-to-ceiling windows. At the other end is the master bedroom. In between are hallways and other bedrooms, a bath and my office, which gets the worst reception, probably because it’s buried in the middle of the house.

Before setting up, I walked around my home noting how many bars my phone, an iPhone 6 Plus, displayed to find the strongest and weakest areas of reception. The phone display ranged from one to three bars: three bars in the living room near the windows, just one bar in my office and one or two bars everywhere else.

Setting up was simple and straightforward. I plugged the Network Unit into an outlet on the wall next to the large windows and stood it on the floor against the baseboard, tucked behind a chair. Its own built-in display indicated four green bars.

I then plugged in the second box, the Coverage Unit, in my office where the signal was the lowest. The number 9 was displayed, indicating a strong signal was being received. The instructions ask you to find a spot that is at least 8.

I was curious to see what the cell signal measured on my phone. I repeated the walk around and found the number of bars, originally ranging from one to three, now read mostly four or five, with an occasional three. By the numbers, the improvement was very impressive.

I used the phone for several days, and the phone worked really well — no dropped or staticky calls and very clear conversations. I measured the download speed during a time when the networks were not likely to be busy, using a neat free app OpenSignal.

With the Cel-Fi active, download and upload speeds averaged about 15 Mbps. With the Cel-Fi unit disconnected, the download was about 8 to 10 Mbps and the upload with a meager 0.6 Mbps.

I also measured the signal strength on my phone to be -74 dB with Cel-Fi on and -118 dB with it off, an improvement of 44 dB.

There are also a couple of side benefits. Because of the strong signal, the phone doesn’t need to run at its maximum power; thus battery life is extended, and the phone emits less radiation.

This is a very impressive product: easy to set up, easy to use and the improvement in performance speaks for itself. The product sells for about $500, and is well worth it if you have unsatisfactory cell service at home.

Equally important: If you’ve hesitated to get rid of your landline because of marginal cellular service, now there’s less of a reason to hold back. (


I consider myself to be a good photographer, although sometimes I become more focused on the equipment than the results. Before vacations I often obsess about which camera to take along. Should it be my prized Leica digital rangefinder, a pocket-sized Canon or Sony, or something in between, such as a Leica D-Lux 109, slightly larger than a compact camera? Often I’m looking for something that performs well, but is not a problem carrying everywhere.

On my recent vacation to Italy with my wife and daughter, I decided to travel light and take just the D-Lux, while my wife took the Sony RX100. But something unexpected happened during the trip. I used my iPhone 6+ to take more than half the pictures.

I suspect I’m late to the party, joining the masses that are using their phones instead of separate cameras. But based on my experience on this trip, phone cameras are a viable alternative to the best of cameras. In fact, a phone camera can take comparable images and even better video in some situations, and offers several advantages over conventional equipment.

Among the other half-dozen in our group, ranging in age from 30 to 81, there was just one other camera. Everyone else used their phone cameras, both iPhones and Androids. And there’s good reason for it, particularly on a trip like this. We were all able to immediately share our experiences through our photos with each other and with friends back home.

When it came to quality, the images from the phones were usually quite good, sometimes better than we got from our expensive cameras. While smartphone cameras don’t have the large zoom lenses, wide aperture or flexibility of settings that cameras do, they have other capabilities that cameras don’t have.

They have in-camera processing, using the power of a computer to improve the original images. And because of the lens’ smaller aperture, nearly everything is in focus. When set to “HDR,” they can make images that are multiple exposures superimposed on top of one another to bring out details in the dark shadows and the overexposed areas.

The phone cameras also excel for close-up images. We all took many pictures of wine labels, as well as the food we cooked or enjoyed out at a restaurant, images that did not focus well when using the other cameras.

The lack of adjustments means there’s no fiddling with settings; you simply pick up the camera and shoot. As a result, the pictures capture what you intended, closer to the moment.

When we returned home and examined the collection of images and videos under magnification, the iPhone images held up quite well. They didn’t beat the Sony or Leica for sharpness, but for color, snappiness and capturing the moment, they compared favorably. And unless you plan to make enlargements of 8-by-10 inches or more, resolution becomes less of an issue.

But even more important than capturing the images was what we were able to do after taking them. At the end of each day, we uploaded our phone images onto the Apple iCloud to create photo albums with everyone’s pictures together.

Apple’s new sharing of albums feature means you can create an album made up of everyone’s images and accessible to all. Many posted their images directly onto Facebook or Instagram to share them with friends. Android phone users were able to upload to iCloud using an app.

This is all enabled by the phone’s built-in wireless technology that lets you upload images using Wi-Fi or the cellular. Most avoided the cell because of cost, but I used it on my T-Mobile iPhone 6+, which has free data in most of the world.

The quality of the photos and video from the in-phone cameras on both the iPhone and Android phones were good.

While there’s no zoom lens on phone cameras, a similar effect can be accomplished by zooming in on the image, which, while lowering the resolution, lets you get a perfectly composed image.

However, the limitations of the smartphone camera begin to appear in very low light, where the lens has a smaller opening than the camera’s and the tiny sensor creates camera motion, underexposed and grainy results. But that tended to happen at the end of the day, after we were full of food and had several glasses of local wine, and few of us cared!

Using a smartphone camera offers a sense of liberation from using complex equipment, allowing you to pay attention to where you are at the moment. Taking a picture becomes a quick break.

I discussed my experience with Ken Rockwell, who runs one of the most popular websites covering camera equipment ( What’s his favorite compact camera for traveling? His iPhone 6+.

So now when I travel, the question will not be which camera I take, but whether I take one at all.


American Express positions their card as the one never to leave home without, and that they are wherever you are around the world. But on a recent trip, they let me down just when I needed them the most.

As I boarded a plane a few weeks ago at LAX on my way to Rome, I received an urgent email from Amex asking me to call them about several recent charges to my American Express Platinum card, suggesting that my card may have been compromised.

I called Amex during a layover in Montreal and confirmed the charges were not mine. As a result, they said they would need to cancel my card and issue a new one.

They offered to send me the new card to my Rome hotel where I’d be for two days, and assured me there was plenty of time for it to reach me. I offered to visit their Rome office to pick up a card, but they said they no longer offer that service. They also assured me that my recurring monthly payments to about a dozen companies that are automatically billed to my Amex card would not be affected.

But on my last day at the hotel in Rome, I received an email from them with a DHL tracking number that took me to the DHL site saying that the card was just being shipped from the United States and its arrival date would be several days after I checked out.

I called Amex; they apologized and offered to deliver the card to me at my next hotel in Norcia, a small town in Umbria. I’d be there for a week and was assured there was more than enough time. Five days after I checked in, still no card had arrived. But Amex emailed me DHL’s new tracking number that said the replacement card would be delivered to the hotel fours days after my checkout date.

Another call to Amex; they told me that if the card didn’t arrive before I left Italy, they would send a third replacement card to me when I returned home.

The DHL tracking information proved to be incorrect, because the card arrived the next day. I called the number on the card to validate it and was assured it could now be used.

I made a charge with it that day and it worked fine. The following day I flew to London and went to pick up a rental car, but when I tried using the new card, it was rejected! A call to Amex and the agent said that card was invalidated because they were going to send me a card to my home. The new card that worked the day before could no longer be used, in spite of assurances I was given earlier.

(Just as background, I try to use a single card for all my expenses, so it’s easier to keep track of at tax season. The Amex Platinum has proved best for this. I carry a couple of other cards for backup, but use them much less often.)

I have rarely encountered an incident with such confusion and conflicting information, resulting in Amex being unable to get me a card I could use during my two weeks of travel.

The usually helpful customer service agents showed little knowledge of the replacement process and the time it would take for International delivery. Each time I called, they needed to connect me with their security department, and even on the same call, each person I spoke with asked me a slew of questions to confirm my identity.

While fraud is a big issue, Amex seemed to have shifted their balance away from providing the best customer service to protecting themselves against fraud, and that’s resulted in a less than stellar experience they are know for with this product.

I’ve used an American Express Platinum card for fifteen years. While its $450 annual cost may seem excessive, the excellent benefits actually net out at much less. Its benefits include free entrance to a network of airport clubs, payment for a Global Entry card, free Wi-Fi from Boingo and payment of up to $200 each year for airline charges such as baggage fees and seating upgrades each year.

They also do a great job in resolving merchant disputes, usually in the cardholder’s favor. But these perks are not useful if you can’t use the card for its primary purpose.

To the company’s credit, one of the customer service agents offered to credit the account for $150 for phone calls and the inconvenience of it all.

I asked American Express to comment, and they were very apologetic. They will be looking into DHL’s inaccurate tracking information and try to improve delivery reliability. They did note that overnight replacement is provided in the United States, but they need to do better outside the country.


Homeland Security personnel ran a test a few weeks ago to determine how effective the screening is at U.S. airports. The results were dismal. The Transportation Security Administration failed to detect fake guns, bomb parts, and explosives in 67 out of the 70 attempts, failing 95 percent of the time.

Something is terribly wrong when an organization provides a service that gets it right only 5 percent of the time. Just think about that. What it says is the system used at checkpoints for screening is a complete failure. Of course, the agency defended their performance by citing how many guns and knives they did confiscate, but that’s little consolation.

Can you imagine any company offering a service or product to paying customers that only works 5 percent of the time? It’s unheard of. It never happens because during its development, issues would be exposed that would force a redesign, or in the worst case, the conclusion that no solution is possible. That’s the way the invention and development process works.

But when it comes to the TSA’s security system devised for airports, how did we get where we are? You can’t blame just the agents that staff the checkpoints; they’re following the instructions given to them. Responsibility goes right to the top.

It goes back to the Department of Homeland Security that defined and developed the system to screen travelers. It didn’t take this recent audit to know it’s not working. That’s just the latest evidence in one failed audit after another.

The process to create a service or any product in the private sector is very straightforward. It typically begins with a specification of what the product or service needs to do. Goals are set so you can measure your success later on.

A development team then creates the product. Along the way, it’s evaluated several times to see how well it works, and if it meets the original specification. When it doesn’t, more invention is required and, if needed, a complete redesign might occur.  At some point, when the team believes they’ve met their goal, it’s brought to market.

Was the security system developed by TSA in this way? Was it developed with a specific requirement in mind? Were those requirements ever tested? Or did it come about as something that evolved with little testing?

The system consists of the agents, the screening equipment and the rules and procedures they follow. And all of them failed. Clearly, TSA knows the screening system is flawed and the TSA has failed miserably in its goal. Keeping the same system in place and expecting better results is not the solution.

Most all of us who travel know the system is broken. We see agents focusing on the elderly in wheelchairs, babies with bottles of milk, and adults with knitting needles. That diverts effort to do the more important work.

Last year, TSA implemented a pre-approval for frequent travelers. It was designed to allow those pre-approved to pass through security more quickly, without having to remove their computer or take off their shoes and light jackets. It was the fast checkout line for travelers.

But the TSA took this seemingly straightforward process and screwed it up. First, those who have gone through the process to become TSA prequalified are randomly refused the service. But worse than that, TSA randomly sends travelers who have not gone through the preapproval process to the pre-check line.

This is unacceptable, not only because these people slow the line by not knowing what to do and not do, but they are not the “known travelers” who had been pre-screened and fingerprinted.

Criticism is easier than coming up with a solution. I don’t have the answers to what will work or what will provide better screening, but neither does TSA. It’s time to bring in a team that understands security and the product development process and uses the smartest people they can find to come up with a solution.

Otherwise, the whole process is a farce, and potentially a very dangerous farce.



Two months ago we were bombarded with news of the introduction of the Apple Watch. Everywhere we turned, another article, blog, preview or TV personality was talking about the product. And with it came the usual exaggerations — from Apple about how the watch is life-changing and from the analysts and writers, predicting the collapse of the Swiss watch industry and the decimation of other smartwatches.

The buildup to this fever pitch was orchestrated by Apple’s expert PR people, who may have spent as much as $100 million. Apple slowly leaked news of the watch beginning last year and, after numerous teases, showed the product to the press and public at an event that was broadcast live over the Internet to a worldwide audience.

Simultaneously, it permitted a small group of reporters from the major national publications and blogs to publish their reviews in concert on the following day, based on being lent a watch a few days earlier.

While it’s hard not to admire Apple’s prowess at rolling out new products, there’s also a sense of Apple manipulating the tech media industry and its customers by exaggerating the importance of its new products. It’s as if they created a huge bubble that we all were inside. Of course, the industry and reporters allowed themselves to be manipulated.

Now that things have settled down and the bubble has deflated, just how is the Apple watch doing and have any of the predictions come true?

The reviews have been generally positive, but the watch requires quite a bit of effort to set up and manage the constant alarm interruptions from mail, messages and calendar, and its tie to an iPhone limits some of its flexibility as a stand-alone device. And unlike other Apple products the Watch is somewhat difficult to learn to use.

The consensus is that it’s a work in progress, but a product that beats the competition because of its attractive design and interface. It doesn’t score a 100, but perhaps an 88, while the competition is in the 70s. So while it’s a very good product, it’s not likely to be a huge game changer.

As for sales, Global Equities Research analyst Trip Chowdhry estimates that Apple has sold more than 7 million watches. Compared to other Apple products, that’s an excellent start. What we don’t know is the percentage of returns. Conceivable for a product such as this it could be 15-20%.

The iPhone, originally an exclusive with AT&T, sold 1.1 million in its first quarter, and the iPad sold 3.3 million units in its first quarter in 2010. So by the standard of previous rollouts, the Watch is doing quite well, although it benefited by a much larger PR campaign. And unlike the iPad and iPhone, where word of mouth was nearly all positive from its early users, we are now getting more negative reviews and reports of early fans returning or no longer using the Watch.

Some thought that the Apple watch would damage the Swiss watch industry, similar to the impact of the quartz watch from Japan in the ’70s. But many analysts like to write about how one product will become the “killer” of another, which rarely happens.

So far, there’s been very little impact, and I personally don’t think there will be much of an effect. The strength of the high end-market for Swiss watches is driven by the mechanical watches that have great appeal to watch aficionados for their tiny gears, levers, springs and workmanship that can cost from $3,000 to more than $75,000. Some are truly works of art. That’s an audience that’s quite different from those interested in the electronic Apple Watch whose insides is filled with electronic circuitry.

Based on a recent article in the Swiss newspaper Le Temps, Switzerland in 2014 sold just 1.7 percent of the world’s watches by volume, 29 million, but 57.5 percent by value.

Switzerland’s success has come less from the lower and midprice watches selling from $600 to $1,000, but from those watches selling above $3,000, many from manufacturers around since the late 1800s.

The report goes on to note that, “Exports of entry-level watches have dropped by 19.3 percent since the turn of this century, while lower-level watches have increased by 58.9 percent and midlevel ones by 9.6 percent. But the real change has come in the high-end category, where sales have increased by an astonishing 236 percent.”

While Apple will likely sell more watches than all the Swiss watchmakers combined, that’s still a tiny percentage of the worldwide watch market.

As to the volume of production, the Swatch brand leads with a yearly production of 12 million units, followed by Tissot at 4.2 million. In the midrange, Longines leads with 1.3 million, followed by TAG Heuer at 650,000.

In the high-end category, Rolex leads with 780,000 units, followed by Omega at 720,000. Patek-Philippe, one of the most revered brands of all high-end manufacturers, sells just 58,000 watches each year.

So, Apple watch sales will have very little impact on the high-end market for mechanical watches, those that contain the complex technologies developed over centuries.

What will its impact be on other smartwatches? That’s where Apple will have an effect, taking market share from Pebble, Basis Peak, Motorola, Samsung and LG. None of these can match the attractive design and overall user experience of the Apple Watch.

I recently tested Basis Peak’s latest model and, while I found it very functional and an improvement over its first model, it’s more utilitarian. But unlike the Apple Watch, it works with Android and the iPhone and doesn’t need to be charged as often.

What’s the lesson in all of this? Don’t believe the exaggerated reporting and the wild predictions that are generated from big PR campaigns. Things are often much less than they seem.

Still, graduations are coming up this month.


With Father’s Day approaching, here’s q list of tech gift suggestions:

Products That Hold On to Your Cards and Money: Innovation has come to the wallet to better reflect what we carry: lots and lots of cards and less cash. Instead of the age-old folding wallet that holds a few credit cards and lots of bills, there are now clever solutions to carry a dozen or more credit cards and a few bills, creating a much more compact package instead of a huge bulging billfold.

Bellroy, an Australian company, has many innovative designs and an excellent website that explains what each of their wallets can hold. Most are variations of the traditional wallet, but with more compartments to hold stacks of cards and leather ribbons to pull them out. ( $60-$140

 TGT has a clever band with a few pockets that stack your cards and bills in a package smaller than you can imagine, yet the cards are easily accessible. The only thing more compact is a rubber band, which I know many still use. ( $34-$42.

Waterfield ( offers a number of made in the U.S. leather wallets designed to hold more than a dozen cards and a stack of bills folded in half. I like their Finn wallet that costs. $40. Both Waterfield and Bellroy have products that will also hold an iPhone along with the cards and bills.

 Staying in Charge
While there are dozens of back-up batteries, nothing compares to the tiny size of the Power Bank by Eachine that manages to provide 6000 mAh, about the same capacity as some iPad models. It’s not much larger than a matchbox, and about a third the size of the batteries from Mophie and other brands. In addition, it has an LCD numerical display to tell you its current capacity. It has 2-amp output for quick charging of phones and tablets. It’s available from Amazon for just $20.

BlueLounge has a clever charging stand that sits on a desk or night table and can charge up to 3 devices at once. It’s an attractive design that hides all the cords and has enough power to handle a tablet as well. $99,

 Grillin’ and Chillin’
iGrill2 Bluetooth Thermometer allows you to wirelessly monitor the cooking of your food on the grill or in the oven from your phone up to 150 feet away. It’s capable of monitoring four items with optional probes, and you can preset the alarm to go off at any temperature between -22 F and 572 F and monitor your cooking progress from an iPhone or Android. It’s a huge improvement over their original device and costs $100. A mini version is also available for $37. It has a single probe and works much the same way. (

For the Travelling Man
While we all just learned that, in a sting operation, TSA has failed to catch fake guns, explosives and bomb parts, they always seem to find my pocket knife or water bottle that I forgot to leave at home. The Leatherman Style PS is a pocket-size multi-tool that is TSA-compliant, meaning it has no knife. But it does have scissors, screwdrivers, pliers, wire cutter, nail file, tweezers, carabineer and bottle opener. It’s nicely made of stainless steel and costs just $20. (

The hottest camera right now for serious shooters is the Sony Alpha 2 II. It’s a mirrorless camera with a full-size sensor that’s more compact than a DSLR. It has a magnesium body, is splash proof, and has a five-axis sensor-shift image stabilization mechanism that moves its 24MP full-frame CMOS sensor to compensate for camera shake, allowing you to shoot at one-quarter the normal shutter speed. You can use a wide variety of lenses on it from other companies, including Leica by buying an inexpensive adapter. It costs $1,699 for the body, $1,999 with its kit lens.

Watch Out:
For Dads not into the smartwatch craze but who have several mechanical watches, a precision watch winder makes a great gift. The winders are battery operated and simulate wearing a watch on the wrist to keep it fully wound and running continuously.

There are many brands, but probably the best ones come from Orbita, a North Carolina company. They have models that wind multiple watches or just one, and all are silent and reliable. The Sparta entry-level model winds one watch and costs $295. It runs on D cells for years at a time. (

It’s hard to compile this list without mentioning smartwatches. The Apple Watch is likely the most desirable by dads, but only for those who use an iPhone. For Android users, new models from Basic and Pebble should not be overlooked. They’re very competent, less expensive and are small enough to match the size of normal watches.

The Pebble is focused more on reminders and supplementing the apps on your phone, while the Basic is better for health tracking, with its many more built-in sensors, including a very good heart monitor. Each costs about $200, as compared to the Apple Watch, which begins at $349.

Last, don’t forget the original inventors of high-tech watches, Casio, Seiko and Citizen. Each of these companies has some amazing models with built-in GPS, world time, stop watch and alarm functions. Casio G-Shock watches begin at about $100; Seiko’s latest Astron series with built-in GPS starts at about $1,500. Then there’s the Yes watch, a clever timepiece developed in San Diego that displays sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset and world time. ($800,

Droning On and On
Drones have been in the news, and the Parrot Bebop Drone is a relatively low-cost unit that can get your feet wet with this technology. It has a built-in GPS system that’s designed to bring it back to the take-off point plus some other features to make it safe to use. Parrot makes several models in the sub-$500 range that are good for fun, but not serious use. ($500,


I recently attended an open house for my 10-year-old grandson at his public school in Marin County. On every desk in his fifth-grade classroom was a Samsung Chromebook.

He explained to me that it’s used primarily while connected to the Internet, and he knew all about Google Docs, which provide Office-like functionality. When I asked if they use iPads, he said. “Of course not; they’re more for games and not real computers.”

He said he likes the Chromebook because it allows him to write papers and do research at his desk, and collaborate on projects with classmates. It also lets him write papers or do research on his home computer and then access that information at school. And it’s just like the computer his parents use, so it’s familiar and easy for him to use.

The Chromebook was developed by Google as a bare-bones notebook computer designed to leverage the Internet, much as work stations were used in the past. It uses a simple OS based around the Chrome browser. Some even resemble a MacBook Air, slim and light, and weighing as little as 3 pounds.

A Chromebook has little memory or internal storage, it can use a low-cost processor, and doesn’t need the latest display technology. Because most of the software and computing power is accessed on the Internet, the device rarely needs upgrading and viruses are rare.

What’s happening in this school is being repeated in thousands across America. The Chromebook has become one of the most popular devices for elementary education; Google claims that Chromebooks are approaching 50 percent share of the U.S. education market.

IDC, a market research company, reported that’s already happened, with 715,000 Chromebooks shipped to U.S. schools in the third quarter of 2014, while Apple shipped 702,000.

While it may be less glamorous than an iPad, a Chromebook can cost one-third the price, yet it has a full size keyboard and a larger display. Chromebooks have a long battery life, similar to an iPad. They’re available from HP, Samsung, Acer, Lenovo, Toshiba, Asus and Google. While models can cost up to $1,000 with a premium display and additional memory, a $300 model offers very good utility.

School administrators also like Chromebooks because they’re easier to manage with the built-in capabilities for IT managers. The devices can be shared because the association between the user and device is determined when connecting to the Web rather than on the device itself, as on the iPad. As a result, fewer Chromebooks are needed because a school’s Chromebooks can be shared while all the personal information, files and settings remain private.

In its latest study, Gartner, another marketing research company, wrote that it expects worldwide sales of Chromebooks to reach 7.3 million units this year, a 27 percent increase from 2014.

Education is the primary market and represented 72 percent of the worldwide Chromebook market in 2014. By comparison, Apple sold 68 million iPads in 2014, but only a small fraction were for educational institutions.

Google’s original target for Chromebooks was business, particularly for those companies wanting a low-cost alternative to notebooks. But Chromebooks have been slow to catch on here, primarily because of the lower cost of notebooks, the limited functionality and complexity of Google Docs and the device’s limited usefulness without an Internet connection.

Chromebooks have been more successful in business for those looking for a second low-cost computer that’s a companion to their primary computer, and can be particularly useful for traveling. Because all of its files are accessed from the Web using Google drive, or other Web-storage services, syncing is not needed with a primary computer.

Because many of the files are accessible on the Web, the computer contains little that is personal, and if it is lost or stolen, it’s not a big deal.

Last week I wrote about the new MacBook as a second computer for traveling, but a Chromebook is another excellent alternative and much more affordable — as little as 20 percent of the cost of a MacBook. The benefit of the MacBook is its ability to do much of your work untethered to the Web and be able to store much more on your computer, including music and photos.

But a $300 Chromebook is much less of a concern if it’s stolen or lost; it essentially becomes disposable.


Apple’s latest MacBook — introduced the same day as the Apple Watch, but with much less fanfare — is the lightest and thinnest MacBook ever. It weighs just 2 pounds and is a half-inch thick at the rear, tapering to an almost knife-thin eighth-of-an-inch in the front.

That’s half the weight of the 13-inch MacBook Pro and two-thirds the weight of the 13-inch MacBook Air. An advantage over the Air is its very high-resolution Retina display, similar to the Pro.

I’ve been using the 12-inch MacBook (yes, that’s the official name) for about a week now, and like it a lot. It allows me to travel with the complete functionality of a computer in a package that’s the same weight and just slightly larger than an iPad.

To accomplish this, Apple made some design choices that’s raised a little controversy, which happens whenever Apple does something different. Apple is one of the few companies that can get away with such changes that often show vision a few years later.

For one, the notebook uses a slightly slower processor that eliminates the fan, saving space and weight, and lowering power consumption. While I didn’t stream high-res movies, I never encountered any speed issues during my use: mostly writing documents, surfing, emailing and viewing YouTube videos.

Apple also eliminated the many ports for connecting to a monitor, printer and other devices, and now uses a single port for digital data and charging that works for all, the new USB Type C standard that’s  better than any previous USB connector. It can be inserted either up or down, like Apple’s lightening connector, and securely clicks into place.

The charger, similar to those for other MacBooks, uses a plug-in USB Type C cable with the same connector on both ends. But unlike other MacBooks, there’s no charging light to show the state of charging, something I missed. Also missing are the convenient fold-out legs for winding up the cable.

For connecting to USB devices as well as memory cards, you need a $19 dongle with a USB Type C connector on one end and a large USB slot connector on the other. Apple was chintzy not to include this. Other more costly dongles are available to connect to monitors, and I’m sure we’ll see third-party products as well.

Surprisingly, I haven’t found the lack of a USB connector to be much of an issue, because I connect to my printer using Wi-Fi, and if I want to use a mouse or extra keyboard, those can connect with Bluetooth. I do miss an SD card slot, but can work around this by using a card reader plugged into the end of the dongle. The most serious omission is the lack of a built-in camera, something I like to use for Skype, mostly while traveling!

One of the biggest differences from past MacBooks is the keyboard and trackpad. I’m particularly sensitive to keyboards, having used ThinkPads for so many years, and having developed the Stowaway folding keyboard for the Palm.

I found this new keyboard to have a little less travel and a different force profile as my fingers pressed down. The keys also sound a little different, with a lower pitch click, but have a pleasant snap that indicates it’s registering. I rarely had mistypes and found the keyboard to be fine, if not quite as good as previous MacBooks, with longer key travel.

The trackpad is a major change from the current design and will likely be adopted on other MacBooks. Other models use a diving board design with the pad hinged at the rear. Pressing down near its front edge moves the surface downward and creates a mechanical click. But pushing down near its hinged point in the rear does nothing.

The new Force trackpad looks much the same, but you can now push anywhere on it and it will feel as if it moves down and clicks. There is also a secondary click that occurs if you press a little harder. This feature is used to bring up additional options, such as showing the content of a folder or a word’s definition. Actually, the pad surface doesn’t move down, but uses a vibration to simulate movement. I noticed a lack of clicking and moving when lifting my finger up front the trackpad after dragging and dropping, but adjusted over time.

I found the battery life to be a little disappointing, based on its rating of nine hours. Like most Apple battery ratings, I find it’s best to cut them in half. I got about five hours on a charge, running at 80 percent of full brightness and connected to Wi-Fi.

Besides its lightness, my favorite feature is the display. It’s exceptionally sharp with 220 dpi, a neutral white and very bright. It may just be Apple’s best display yet.

The MacBook offers a great alternative to carrying my standard MacBook Pro most everywhere I travel, including non-business trips. I prefer to travel with something that’s doesn’t contain all my confidential information, particularly when accessing public Wi-Fi networks. For me, an iPad doesn’t come close because of its limited utility.

The MacBook works as long as I don’t load it up with all the contents from the Pro. To make it easier to use two computers, I store the information I’ll need on a trip on the iCloud drive or on Dropbox. I can then access it from either computer.

Connecting with iCloud and my Gmail account automatically syncs my address book, email and calendar. For now I set up the Pro in my office attached to a large monitor.

The 12-inch MacBook comes in three colors and two configurations with 256GB and 512GB of storage memory for $1,299 and $1,599. Both come with 8 GB of internal memory, and the computers come in aluminum, gold, and space gray, which match the iPhone 6.

Like the original MacBook Air, the MacBook represents a major change in notebook design, and it’s likely we’ll see many of its features migrate to other models over the next year or two. But, it clearly it has displaced the Air as the best Mac computer for traveling.

Next week I’ll cover another alternative for traveling with a very lightweight computer, but something that costs just $300.


Webroot is a large, privately held Colorado-based company that makes cloud-based software for consumers, businesses and enterprises that address Internet threats. The company claims to serve over 7 million consumers.

Recently one of my readers, John B., a very satisfied Webroot customer for many years, contacted me about how the company began introducing annoying pop-up advertising disguised as a feature and then, when he complained, lied to him about it.

He said a Webroot pop-up began to appear on his screen a few weeks ago, requesting him to view a supposed security report. Instead it was a sales pitch in disguise. It popped up three or four times a day, plus every time he rebooted.

He assumed he needed to change a setting. But there wasn’t one. So he went to the Webroot site, sent a message asking how to turn off this new and obtrusive annoyance, and received this response:

“The Personalized Security Report is a new feature designed to inform our users about how they are being protected, and show detailed threat information related to them. There is currently no way to disable these messages, … but if you open and look at the security report it will stop coming up to remind you. The report is available once every three months or so, and the messaging campaign lasts about a week.”

John found their response offensive and missing the point, because the “new feature” was an advertisement and nothing more. And in spite of their assurances, it never went away. When he tweeted a complaint, he drew this response from @Webroot, their Twitter account:

“The in product notice should not be constant. This indicates an underlying issue. Please contact support.”

John tweeted back and explained that he was told by support that the message was not “an underlying issue,” but in fact a new “feature” they had built into the product.

They tweeted back:

“The quickest way to get visibility on this issue would be to submit a feature request. Thank you.”

So, in summary, Webroot adds annoying pop up ads that appear throughout the day and can’t be turned off. You complain to the company and you’re told to complain on the community forum or ask for a “feature request” change.

I reached out to their public relations using the PR email address on the company’s website, and asked if they could comment on John’s complaint. Surprisingly, I never heard from a PR person, but instead received an email, as if I had filed a technical request:

“Thank you for contacting Webroot Technical Support. The Webroot Personalized Security report is not an advertisement; it is something that can be viewed by the customer, which gives them an abbreviated report card of what activity Webroot performed on their computer. This is a consumer version of the more extensive reporting that the Webroot agent is capable of in business environments.”

I visited their forum and found about 100 posts from customers complaining about this same issue, with many threatening to cancel their subscription. Some even complained that the pop-up covered up parts of the program they needed to use.

Unfortunately, treating the customer poorly after the purchase is something that’s all too common. Imposing an inconvenience or interruption that slows down productivity has become the norm. Considering that we interact with dozens of software products and services each day, it can become exasperating.

This week alone I experienced issues with several companies that hid their 800 number, even though I pay for their services. Searching for one on Google brought up spoofing sites posing as the software company and offering an 800 number, but then charging for support.

Another website popped up annoying adds that could not be closed, and a site that I signed up to try (Houzz) has been bombarding me with daily emails; opting out does not prevent the ads from continuing. The New York Times website, which I pay more than $20 a month, now has introduced pop-up ads that delay my ability to read the news.

And many sites require you to enter an email address to just learn about their product. Then they remind you daily if you don’t buy.

More and more companies seem to have lost the balance between providing a good product and subjecting their customers to ads and annoyances. They treat their customers, not as people to be valued and respected, but those they can harass to sell more.

If you’ve experienced similar problems, let me know. The best recourse is to shine a light on those companies that exhibit bad behavior.