Modern Pendulum – My Thoughts on the Fitbit

I travel through an exploration of the history of distance, a look at the origins of the pendulum, and a discussion about the start of the pedometer. From there I dive into the Fitbit, sharing my thoughts and opinions on it.

The mile we know oh so well is supposedly equivalent to the distance covered in 1,000 paces by soldiers in armor for hour after hour, day after day, week after week. Well, that is what I was told in school. The soldiers would drive wooden steaks into the ground every 1,000 paces to track the distance covered. Despite the comparative similarity of the words, the etymology of the word ‘mile’ comes from the Latin for the number one-thousand. Thus the linguistic connection between a unit of measure today and the Roman foot soldier two thousand years ago.

Roman soldier Re-enactors

Well, sort of.

In truth the Roman mile was roughly 400 feet shorter than the 5,280 feet we know today. Well, usually. You have to consider the differing length of steps depending on how rushed the soldiers were, or how tired they were. But let’s assume the distance around 4800 feet is the solid average distance for the Roman mile.

So where did those extra 400 feet end up coming from? Burueacracy. 1,760 yards, or 5,280 feet, was defined as the length of a mile since 1593 when the British Parliament passed an act that officially defined the distance as “eight furlongs, every furlong forty poles, and every pole sixteen foot and a half.” Not exactly a simple thing, but from this declaration came the official measure that we know today. This became known as the statute mile (not to be confused with the nautical mile which is itself another unique length not directly relevant to this discussion.)

That act of parliament wasn’t the final word on the matter though. The actual distance of a mile varied from country to country or even person to person. So, in July of 1959, a handful of nations met and agreed upon the exact length of the international yard in terms of meters, and thus the international mile was also codified as 1,760 yards.

Now that we’ve reached the final distance of a modern mile, lets jump back to the renaissance for a bit and examine the origin of the meter. (I swear I talk about the Fitbit soon.)

John WilkinsIn 1668, seventy five years after the distance of a mile was defined by parliament, an English cleric and philosopher named John Wilkins proposed a unit of distance that he named the ‘metre’ which was defined by the distance covered by a pendulum with a half-period of one second.

It’s a brilliant way to determine distance. He avoided the rabbit hole of dependency in determining length by using the constants of gravity and time, all by using a very simply machine: the pendulum.

I remember being fascinated by pendulums as a kid. The Orlando Science Center had a giant Foucalt pendulum that I would always run up to to and press my face against the glass as I watched its slow swings back and forth.

I can remember drawing a similarity between that pendulum and the way our legs moved. Sure, our legs have extra joints and muscles which enable further motion, but I remember many times standing there watching that pendulum while also swinging one of my legs back and forth freely as if it was a pendulum of its own. Without any good reason I was fascinated by the idea that our legs were pendulums making use of gravity for at least part of the work.

Pendulum

So there I’d stand and watch the pendulum swing, convinced that if I stood there long enough it would eventually slow down and stop. Eventually the parents would tear me away, ready to move onto the next exhibit. And like any good math nerd I’d then count the number of steps it would take me to get to them, or the number of words in a sentence I heard someone saying, or the number of squares in the tile. Etc.

Counting is so fun as a kid. But I can’t imagine it was fun for the Roman soldiers tasked with tracking the distance they covered. I’m sure they all dreamed of some automated way to track the number of paces taken. Unfortunately the Italian peninsula had to wait over a thousand years for the idea of a pedometer to arrive. Leonardo Da Vinci imagined a simple mechanical pedometer in the 1400s and wrote about it in his design journals. It wasn’t until the 1700s when the first mechanical pedometer actually came into being.

The first mechanical pedometer was invented by Abraham-Louis Perrelet. It made use of a pendulum-like system that incremented the counter with each sway of its counting mechanism. Far from perfect, but it remained largely unchanged until the the 1960s.

In 1965 the ‘manpo-kei’ was introduced to Japan along with the notion that 10,000 steps a day was the secret to a healthy life. This is credited as the first digital pedometer in the world, quickly making its way from Japan to the rest of the world. The technology improved incrementally but in the end a digital pedometer was still a fun gadget that never really caught on. Sure most people tried it, but usually as part of some ill-fated weightloss scheme. Among its faults was the that it was a solitary device, and thus you relied on yourself to track and use as a motivational tool.

Forty years later Fitbit Inc. launched the “Fitbit Classic.” In technical terms it isn’t a pedometer like those above, it’s most certainly not mechanical, it is an accelerometer system which analyzes the data to generate step counts, as well as analyze the intensity of the activity.

My Fitbit Activity

Fitbits do more than just count steps. They are wearable at night as a way to monitor your sleeping habits and they track some other points of activity as well. Through the iPhone & Android app you can also track calories eaten, water drank, as well as your weight and body fat percentage.

In all, it allows you to track several points of your ‘quantified self.’

Quantified SelfIn 2008, Kevin Kelly (ex-Wired editor) and Gary Wolf (contributing writer for Wired), held the first Quantified Self meetup in San Francisco. QS is a movement for “self-knowledge through numbers.” With the Fitbit, as well as a few other entrants in the field of self-tracking gadgets, they saw the opportunity for an organized group dedicated to using the technology, sharing the knowledge they gain, and seeing just what can be done. Since then thousands of people have gathered in various city-based meetups, as well as at larger conventions around the world. Some make use of gadgets like the Fitbit, others code their own digital tools while others do it with simple old fashioned way with a spreadsheet and a graph.

I’ve never gotten to attend one of these gatherings but I follow Quantified Self’s website and, as exhibited by the careful tracking of my weight loss and body fat, I do have an interest in the realm of QS.

Up to now I tracked my weight loss through a scale and a spreadsheet. I tried a handful of other things, mobile apps, etc. but I found that I preferred just having a raw Google Doc to work with. I also tried tracking more, things like hours slept, calories eaten, etc. But in the end I always found the extra tracking cumbersome.

Fitbit, Nike Fuelband, Jawbone Up

In the mind of wanting to track more and understand my body better, I’ve been eyeing QS related gadgets for a while. Largely though the focus centered on the Fitbit, the Nike Fuelband, and the Jawbone Up. Fitbit is a company founded to make their flagship gadget. Nike’s Fuelband is an obvious accompaniment to their growing athletic brand offerings. Jawbone is perhaps a surprise given that the company is most famous for their bluetooth earpiece, but I dutifully researched each before making my purchase.

There were three things which really sold me on the Fitbit:

1) I didn’t want a bracelet. – Bracelet trackers appear to be slightly less accurate than those worn on the belt or pocket clip, though they do have two benefits over the belt clips which I’ll get to later. Note, I don’t have any conclusive evidence that bracelets are less accurate.

2) Access to data – I really want the ability to do data exports. Of the three companies, Fitbit is the only one to have any such functionality though they include it only as part of their premium subscription benefits.

3) Customer service – The customer service stories about Fitbit are all positive from what I could find.

Now that I’ve owned my Fitbit for almost two weeks I feel ready to draw some conclusions and make some comments about the gadget as a whole.

I find wearing a Fitbit fun. That probably says a lot about me and where my mindset it. I really enjoy being able to look down and see how many steps I’ve taken today. Fun is good. Fun means there is a positive feedback introduced for simple activities which it tracks and makes it much more likely I’ll continue to work on being active.

Stairs to Elevator

On the opposite end of the scale, the Fitbit causes me distress when I know I’m bypassing things which would up its count such as taking an elevator rather than climbing the stairs at work. It’s not major distress, but I find myself feeling guilty. Which is also a good thing. Sure, sometimes I have a good reason to skip the stairs such as continuing a conversation with someone who takes the elevator – but all things being equal it is the push I need to make me take the stairs when traveling between floors at work.

There is also one very clear truth that the Fitbit makes blindingly clear: Between the office chairs at work and the couch at home, I live a sedentary life. I spend a lot of time sitting around and that further emphasizes the need for me to carve out time for exercise.

As for criticisms, there are perhaps a few things I’m not thrilled with.

You have to be careful with this thing. I had a scare nearly losing my Fitbit after having it for less than a week. Initially I wore my fitbit with it hooked onto my jean’s change pocket putting the Fitbit on the outside. This seemed reasonably secure and allowed easy access to the view screen.

Bad plan.

It got caught in my seatbelt when I was in the car and was pulled free of the belt clip without my noticing. Thankfully it fell out in the car and not in a parking lot so I was able to find it. But this event taught me an important lesson: keep the Fitbit tucked inside your pocket, not outside it.

Clean ad infinitum

Beyond the risk of it falling off your belt there also lies the risk that it remains in you pocket all the way to the wash. This thing is small. The size of a USB drive. I know of one friend who washed his Fitbit only a few weeks after getting it. If the Fitbit is in the middle of a pile of laundry there is no way you will notice it.

While the battery life seems quite good, one of my complaints is around the proprietary charging cable. They use a proprietary cable for charging and I really wish they had just used Micro-USB so that I could use my own cables and not have to keep track of this proprietary dongle.

Lastly, and perhaps most damning: I’m not actually convinced that it is… well, useful. Yet.

The Fitbit can be a passive tool. If used solely for personal tracking, it is not too different from the pedometer we already discussed. And in that case, it has the same downfall as pedometers. But Fitbit and the other companies have begun working beyond this by adding a social layer and introducing achievements based on your levels of activity. In an attempt to be more than a passive tool Fitbit has also set it up such that when you’re within striking distance of a goal your smartphone and email can pop up a note urging you to push a bit further to hit your goal. But these are not aggressive pushes.

There is one feature for the Fuelband that I hadn’t considered before buying my Fitbit. More of my friends have a Fuelband than have a Fitbit.

Fitbit, Nike, and, I assume, Jawbone, all have built in social capabilities where you can add friends to compare and compete with your levels of activity. Taking this feature, where your own little daemon reports regularly on your progress, the social activity should not be overlooked as simply a tacked on part of these tools. This is what I did before I had one of these. I believe the social aspect is actually the most critical thing for these gadgets.

While the Fitbit appears to be the better technical gadget, it is in truth lagging behind Nike’s Fuelband for this very fact. Where as I have one coworker who owns a Fitbit, I know of a half dozen who have Nike Fuelbands and, had I chosen to go that way, I’d be in a bigger pack for fitness.

Wolves

They say that surrounding yourself with fit people will help you with your fitness goals. I think, as we grow to be more and more enmeshed in our digital lives that this sort of digital flocking could have the same effect. Seeing my friend Paul cross the 12,000 step mark for a day, or that Brian might have doubled me up in terms of activity, can definitely be motivators.

I think it says something that after I had a few people read the early drafts of this article they weren’t sure how I actually felt about the Fitbit.

I like it but I don’t love it. I enjoy having it and seeing the counter increase, but I do not regard this as a must have gadget – yet. I do think, for those who live mostly sedentary lives, it has definite value as an additional motivational tool and quantifiable survey of just how active you are. For those who are already mostly fit and simply look to tread water, I don’t think this qualifies as a tool that will really benefit you.

Photo credits:

Launch Calibre when you Connect Your Nook

My step-by-step instructions of how to launch Calibre automatically when you connect your Nook e-Reader to your Windows 7 system.

Calibre is an open-source e-book library manager, it catalogs, indexes, and organizes my e-books. It’s like the robotic bookshelf I never had. Want to show me all the works of Isaac Asimov that I own? What about books that contain the word ‘pinkerton’? In addition to that, and perhaps most importantly, it lets me track and manage the books on my Nook Simple Touch. For people who create ebooks, it is also useful to those ventures, but that’s irrelevant to this mission.

Did I mention that Calibre is 100% free (as in beer!)?

I’ve had a Nook for over two years now, and for that entire time, I’ve searched for a free way to get my Windows to launch Calibre automatically when I plugged the Nook in. I tried a number of things and never got it to work. A few nights ago I stumbled across the solution, and it was built into Windows 7 the whole time. I happened across this post on SuperUser. The author of this post has a very different goal than mine, he wants to auto-sync a USB flash drive, so he suggests an app called SyncToy. I don’t need the syncing, I just need the launch capabilities. And this post showed me the way.

You can go read the post I found and figure it out yourself, but if you’d rather stay here then read on as I’ll provide you with my step by step instructions on how to do this on your own Windows 7 machine (these instructions are likely invalid for other versions of Windows.)

Things required for this tutorial
1. Windows 7
2. Calibre software already installed (this is not a tutorial for how to use Calibre)
3. Nook e-reader (Or any other e-reader you plug into Windows 7, but mine is done using a Nook Simple Touch.)
4. USB cable to connect Nook e-reader.

Warning: As with all of these projects, your mileage may vary. We’re not doing anything inherently dangerous, but I just want to be clear that I offer no further support or guarantee for your computers. If your computer explodes, creates a black hole and sucks you and your office into it, or otherwise goes haywire – I am not held responsible.

Alright, with those things out of the way, here we go!

1. Click the Windows logo in the lower left corner and start typing ‘Computer Management’ at some point in that sentence you should see it pop up as an option at the top. Note, you’ll need admin rights on your machine.

calibre-step-1

2. It will launch the application, which looks something like this.

calibre-step-2

3. In that left column navigate down the tree as follows:

  • Click the arrow to the left of “Event Viewer”
  • Click the arrow to the left of “Applications and Services Logs”
  • Click the arrow to the left of “Microsoft”
  • Click the arrow to the left of “Windows”
  • Click the arrow to the left of “DriverFrameworks-UserMode”
  • Click on “Operational”

It should reveal a page which looks similar to this:

step3

4. So what you’re looking at here is the log of all the things you plugged into the USB ports on your machine, so picking out which one is your e-book reader can be a bit difficult. So let’s clear the log. On the right column of the screen, the fourth option from the top is ‘Clear Log…’ – click that and then click the middle button labeled ‘Clear.’ We could save the log but there really isn’t a reason to.

step4

step4b

5. Now that the log is cleared, let’s plug in our Nook and see what appears. Go ahead and plug your Nook into your computer using its Micro-USB cable. (If you don’t know how to do this, you shouldn’t be following this tutorial. Exit now.) Once it’s plugged in your screen will likely fill again with events as your computer fires off a series of actions relating to the newly connected Nook. You’re going to click one and select the top most log entry (this is the last one which ran.) For me this is ‘Event ID’ 2101, but your number may vary. (I’ve censored some unique data about my machine and Nook, ignore the grey boxes.)

step5

6. Now that you’ve selected that top row entry, go to the menu bar at the top and click on ‘Action’ and then go down to ‘Attach Task to this Event’

step6

7. Change the name for the event to something you’re recognize, I chose ‘Launch Calibre’ and click ‘Next’ button.

step7

8. On the “When an Event is Logged” view, click the ‘Next’ button. On the ‘Action’ view, confirm that ‘Start a program is selected’ and click the ‘Next’ button. On the newly added ‘Start a program’ view on the left menu, you need to put in the link to where Calibre is saved. For me, it looks like this: “C:\Program Files\Calibre2\calibre.exe” – Once it’s in the ‘Program/script’ text field, click Next.

step8

9. Click the ‘Finish’ button.

step9

And that’s it! You click the OK button on the next modal. Now to test it, exit out of the Computer Management software. Disconnect and count to 5, then reconnect the Nook to your machine. Once you reconnect, after two or three seconds your computer should recognize the device and launch your installation of Calibre.

Hopefully you’re in business!

Enter the Nexus

I wanted to write a review of the Nexus 7 tablet but decided the specs were well covered elsewhere on the web, so I took a deep look into the tablet and how it exists amid my technology.

It is only fitting that I wrote the majority of this post about my Nexus 7 using my Nexus 7, and I largely did it in the airport after churning on my review for a few weeks. From my brain to my thumbs onto digital paper of my Google Drive by way of my Nexus 7 before being transferred over to my WordPress blog.

TL;DR

I am quite happy, and I wager quite heavily that I am happier than I would have been with an iPad mini. The tablet is slick, responsive, and quite capable.

The Why

I bought the Nexus 7 the same day that the 32GB version went on sale. It arrived on my stoop 2 days later. I chose the Nexus 7 for a few reasons, largest of which was the level of integration available to Google but also because while I enjoy my iPhone I was dissatisfied with iOS and its limitations. Having used the wife’s iPad I felt I wanted the smaller form factor, so the Nexus 7 leapt to the top of potential candidate systems. I explored both the Kindle and the Nook tablets but felt unimpressed. When I compared price to hardware, the Nexus 7 won the battle.

My Technology

I feel it’s disingenuous to give you my review of the tablet without also introducing you to the world of technology I am swath in. The Nexus works for me and I think it will work for most of you, but also understanding how I use it and why I use it is important for others to know so they can draw similarities from my experience.

A few weeks ago my personal laptop bit the dust. At the time I decided that my new technology paradigm revolved around a powerful desktop capable of gaming, coding, and being a home server while my mobility would be driven by a tablet. With the Nexus 7 I have put this system into place and so my personal technology breakdown looks as follows:

  • Work laptop – only used for work related projects
  • Desktop PC – Custom built tower courtesy of NewEgg.
  • iPhone 4s – my primary phone, it remains attached to me from the moment I wake to when I set it with the next day’s alarm.
  • Nexus 7 tablet – the most junior member of this squad but quickly becoming my invaluable piece of technology.
  • Nook Simple Touch eReader – My personal library. With so much of my day spent staring at projected light and screens I really enjoy reading on an e-ink display.

I won’t be giving a hardware review of the N7, there are plenty of those available online already, instead this post is meant to show you what I think about it by showing you my work flow and processes.

How I Use It

The majority of my use on the Nexus 7 is as another vessel by which to consume media. I watch YouTube, TED Talks, and movies. I listen to music and podcasts. I read news, blogs, books, social media and comics. I even wrote a simple script which generates what amounts to my own personal morning newspaper. I named it the Trick Dispatch, and is something I’ll be blogging about in the future after I improve the content and process.

But, with all the media consumption, I also use my Nexus 7 to do a fair amount of content generation. Largely through writing, such as this blog post or in meetings at work where I write notes and manage my task lists. Thus far I have found SwiftKey as a keyboard the most ideal, though it is far from perfect and I’m always looking for new options, including possibly buying a bluetooth keyboard for tasks beyond casual work or note taking. I haven’t yet made the leap to cloud based development, so anytime I tweak this blog’s design I do it on my desktop. However, I did have an interesting idea for an Android app tied to that idea…

Rooting

Rooting the Nexus 7, while not a single-button action, is very straight-forward. The tutorials out there made the process quite painless and easy to do.

The Complaints

My primary complaint around the Nexus 7 is that there are still some serious holes in the apps available for Android, or in the quality of apps for Android. For some, there is simply no parallel between what is available on iOS. The most clear example I can provide is iOS’s Tweetbot Twitter client. No Twitter client, free or paid, on Android comes close to the feel and experience of Tweetbot. They’re either clunky, poorly designed with their UI, or just incomplete in terms of functionality. Admittedly, I probably rate in the power user range when it comes to Twitter, but this is definitely one area that converts from iOS to Android will feel pain. That said, the availability of apps for both iOS and Android has improved dramatically since I left Android behind. It is obviously still not 100%, with companies opting for iOS rather than Android when forced to choose, but it’s now the minority of big companies which don’t support both.

Secondly I find the lack of a quality rear-facing camera frustrating, especially since I rely on the Nexus in my meetings. I know, as my friend Brian said, Google doesn’t want Nexus 7 users standing in concerts holding up their tablets to snap photos – I get that. But I do wish I could just snap photos of whiteboards in meetings, or of documents for emailing etc. Dealbreaker? Not for me. But it is frustrating.

So What’s Next?

Now that I have a tablet I am quite happy with, I find myself wondering what the next piece of technology I will lust over is. One thing I’d like to get is a fitness tracker of some sort, whether it is FitBit, Nike Fuelband, or one of the other options out there. As exercise has risen as an activity I do regularly, I am wishing to dive into a more “quantified self” sort of tracking for it. We’ll see!

Investigating Cutting the Cord

Would dropping cable or satellite TV limit you from watching live sports? I did some investigation to see if it was feasible and financially reasonable.

I grew up watching television.

I remember clearly coming home from middle school and claiming the television so I could watch Star Trek: The Next Generation and other shows. Heck, I even watched Seinfeld when I was in middle school, though I didn’t really get it. Katie, my wife, is much the same. A child raised on TV. So the idea of dropping our beloved cable connection is something of a challenge to even comprehend. But a conversation with a cable-less friend drove me to do some investigating. And you all can reap the benefits.

Katie and I have talked about cutting cable before, our desire to minimize costs being the primary reason. The main thing holding us back is our shared love for sports. Both of us have fathers who dearly loved sports and instilled in us the same fervent love. So the threat of not being able to catch a football game, or watch the NBA shoot hoops has caused us to sit back and refuse the idea.

But in truth I hadn’t looked into whether it was a solvable problem or not. I just took for granted that it was unsolvable or too expensive.

So this week I began pricing out what it would cost to watch sports via the Internet. The numbers are surprisingly varied.

Sports

To watch the NFL, you have a few options. If you’re unable to get satellite TV then there is the DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket $250 option from DirecTV, but this only gives you the 1pm and 4pm Sunday games, you don’t get Sunday Night Football, MNF, or any other football games. Another option, if you’re willing to wait until the day after, is the NFL’s Game Rewind for just $39.99, and then adding the post season the price goes to $69.99.

If you fancy basketball, the NBA has two options, the NBA League Pass has a $180 option which lets you watch all games by all teams, there is also a cheaper option at $120 which allows you to subscribe to just 5 teams.

MLB.tv is perhaps the most advanced for digital offerings of sports. I was initially confused as they listed the price as $25 or $20. But this is the price for the remaining part of the baseball season. I couldn’t find it listed currently but I’m told the price for the complete season is $120. Of those listed here, this is the only one I have any experience with. I had a trial of it back when I was in college. I was never a huge baseball fan, well that’s not true, I loved baseball as a kid. But then their strike happened and I fell forever out of love with the game. Now I only enjoy going to a game live. Anyways, I had the trial and I watched some games with it, but baseball has not been must-see for me so it was just a “nice to have” sort of thing.

Another one which is of interest to me and Katie is Major League Soccer. MLS Live is $60 for the full season. All the games for all the teams.

Katie and I also love watching European soccer games such as the Barclay’s Premier League, La Liga, etc. And for that I found FoxSoccer2Go, which is $170, but provides Barclay’s Premier League as well as a other international soccer leagues.

For those of you who enjoy Hockey, the NHL provides an option called NHL Gamecenter. I couldn’t find any pricing information on their website, so I don’t know what it costs but it’s there.

While we’re on sports that aren’t my fancy, I looked and sure enough NASCAR has an option too called Race View.

 

A Note About Blackouts

For most sports, this is an important caveat. These sports are almost universally affected by black outs, meaning that if you live in the same town as your preferred sports team then you may not be able to watch the games. Policies for blackouts vary from league to league, so definitely do some research into it!

For us it’s not a big issue as Katie and I now live in Seattle and our only local team is the MLS Sounders who we could pick up via an HD antenna. Otherwise our teams are all elsewhere in the country (Orlando, St. Louis, and Atlanta), thus minimizing the chance of this affecting us. But obviously we are in the minority and most people live in the city of their chosen teams.

 

Entertainment

Now let’s talk about the sources for more general entertainment. There are three primary options in my mind: Netflix, Amazon Prime and HuluPlus.

Amazon Prime ($70) – While originally started as an option to get free two-day shipping on Amazon, they have since expanded it to include a hefty library of digital content. We’re already subscribers to Amazon Prime. Their library is sizable but not perfect.

Netflix ($8/month) – There are of course more expensive options if you want to rent regular DVDs but $8 a month is for the digital only option. That comes out to $96 a year. They’re the current kings of offering and services in this arena, and they’re who Amazon are battling with their digital video offerings.

Third in this race is HuluPlus which matches Netflix’s pricing of $8/month, or $96/year. I’ve never really looked into HuluPlus but it has some unique offerings including their own content.

There are some complications in terms of entertainment television we enjoy, such as HBO. HBO has some of the most exciting and addictive content on TV right now and yet there is no way to get the content or their online offering HBOGO without having a cable account to tie it to. Yet? Maybe?

 

How Much Would We Save?

So looking over this buffet of options, here is where I see Katie and I possibly going:

  • Sports:$180
    • NBA – $120 (Orlando Magic, four other teams)
    • MLS – $60
  • Entertainment:$262
    • Amazon: $70
    • Netflix: $96
    • HuluPlus: $96

Total Annual Cost: $442
Total Monthly Cost: $36.83

Well that’s all fine and good, but we need to know if this would actually save us money or not. Our current TV and Internet comes from Comcast and costs us as follows:

  • TV: $112.44
  • Internet: $55.95
  • Bundle Discount: -$45.50

Total: $122.89

Which means that our “cut-cable” costs would be as follows:

  • Internet: $55.95
  • Entertainment + Sports: $36.83

Total: $92.78
Total Monthly Savings: $30.11
Total Annual Savings: $361.32

One important thing to note is that the Entertainment monthly cost I have above won’t be paid monthly, I just do it for comparison purposes. Some of the sports offer an installment option for payment but the best deal is to pay in a lump sum.

There are a few other start up costs not covered above for hardware, like an HDTV Antenna (prices vary but I’d estimate $40), and probably a Roku box ($50). We have a WDLive Box for our stored content, but it doesn’t interface with all of these services like Amazon Prime or some of the sports. But for just $50 a Roku streaming box will interface with almost all of the services I’ve listed here. On the whole though, those early hardware costs are easily easily recovered over the next year or so. You could do without a Roku box if you have a computer to hook up, but I’ve heard good reviews of Rokus and would prefer a dedicated box.

 

Will we do it? I don’t know. It’s an interesting idea and now that I know sports are not a limiting factor, and how much money it would save us, it merits serious consideration.

Reviewing Picplum

With the move to Seattle I decided that Picplum.com was the perfect solution for keeping my dad, my grandmother and my wife’s mom in the loop with photos. While both my dad and her mom are on Facebook, my grandmom isn’t. And there’s something different about receiving physical photos in the mail, which is exactly what Picplum does.

Picplum is a service where we can send photos to their service from your smartphone or desktop and then on a regular schedule have those photos automatically sent out to a predefined list of people. The company is founded by Paul Stamatiou (Georgia Tech alumni) and Akshay Dodeja. They’re funded by Y Combinator (also funded Reddit, Justin.tv, Dropbox, and more) and are looking to turn the photo industry on its head.

I signed up far before I placed my first order with them. It was a service that I intended to use, but felt silly using for only two photos. I mean, it just feels weird. It’s insubstantial. At least, it feels that way to me. In a world where I get people’s random thoughts wirelessly on my phone. I can see videos of people eating their dinner, or watching tv, or I can open Skype and video chat with my friend in south-east Asia. In that world, two photos seems insignificant.

But to my grandmother, who lives in rural Georgia and who’s most exciting part of her week is a trip to see her doctor two towns over. Two photos from her grandson in Seattle, WA… that’s genuine excitement. That’s something she can show her neighbors. Something she and I can talk about when I call her. This isn’t a service for me, it’s a service for her.

This week I finally placed an order, sending out seven photos in the first batch. Five of me and Katie, one of our dogs, and one of the Seattle skyline.

The system is beautifully built and very intuitive. If you do end up having questions they have an on-screen chat service for customer service and when I asked my question I was talking to Akshay, one of the founders. The flow is quite simple once you setup your account, you tell it what email addresses it might expect photos from. In this way I set it up so that either I or Katie can email them photos and have them added to the system. Then I can log in on the computer to manage, either remove duplicate photos  or  upload photos from my PC.

PicPlum home screen

If you’ve recently moved away from family, or have a young one who is entering your life and will require lots of photos to be shared with family, then Picplum is a fantastic service. And when you realize that it’s a service for the recipients more than for yourself, it all makes perfect sense.

Some Ideas for Picplum

  • Notes. Allow notes to be written on back of photos, it might complicate the linear system but it would be invaluable to be able to write little notes such as postcards. “Sally at 3 months.”
  • Distribution lists. I have my core who I want to send photos to regularly, but the more people in their system then it’s easier for me to send photos through Picplum.
  • Pull from my social media. Integrate with Twitter and Facebook and Google+. Let me share a photo and in the tweet I type “#pp” signaling their service to pull the photo for my next batch.
  • Expand capabilities. Rather than be just a “push” platform, meaning that they send out batches. Setup a gallery which is friendly for families and less tech savvy people, making it dead simple for them to get printed photos on my dime. I’d set a spending limit per person or overall, a pre-approved amount per month.

Problems for Picplum

  • Where’s the pivot? As a photo platform there’s already a very competitive marketplace. How does this scale to a big business? I have to believe they’re building this and seeing where it leads them with the belief that they can pivot or respond based on the market response.
  • While an easy and direct interface, it’s still a service that my grandmother can’t use. It requires a certain level of technical savvy even with the linear process.

We’ll see where Picplum.com ends up going, but in the mean time I’ll enjoy using them and following their journey.

This post was unsolicited and is my own opinion, I receive no compensation for writing this. I did include my referral link in this post, so anyone who signs up and uses the company earns me future credit for sending out photos.