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Review: Withings Baby Monitor

The first thing that grabs your attention about the Withings Baby Monitor is its design. Unlike any other webcam on the market, it doesn't make you feel like you're running a peep show. The shiny, minimalist white box is inoffensive and minimalist. The "S.A.F. (spousal approval factor) is quite high, indeed. And you immediately discover its best feature; to turn if off you simply close the lid. (Well, not completely off, as we'll discuss later.)

The second thing that grabs your attention is the price. Compared to the slew of cheap webcams that are flooding the market, this one is a pricey $299. But don't stop reading, as this is a textbook example of "you get what you pay for." (Also, if you're a long-time home automator like me, you remember when much less sophisticated cameras were closer to $500.) As of this writing, you can save a few bucks and get Prime shipping at Amazon.

Setting up the Baby Monitor is a snap. For those of you who have suffered through the archaic configuration of other webcams, you'll be surprised to hear that you don't even need a computer. You can completely configure the Baby Monitor via iPhone, using Bluetooth. This means the camera is easy to travel with, all you have to do is get it connected to the local Wi-Fi network, a step that will strike fear in the hearts of those who own other cameras, but not you.

Baby Monitor also differs from other webcams thanks to the quality of its picture. The video is high-resolution, and the sound (it has both a mic and a speaker) is very, very good. It's so good you could even use this as sort of one-way-video calling system. (Not that I recommend that. Try FaceTime instead.)

The lens is impressively wide angle, and on the iPhone, you can pinch image to zoom in. (This is like a digital zoom, but it's handier and more natural.) If your iPhone is in portrait orientation, you can do a pseudo-pan by dragging the image left or right.

So, aside from great looks, excellent a/v, and the world's easiest setup, why is it worth the price? Well, there's more. There are some baby-specific features such as notifications for sound and motion, and the ability to turn on a nightlight and play a lullaby. But for me, the best extra feature is the video overlay that shows the room's temperature and humidity. You'd normally have to set up a whole different, geeky system to get these measurements remotely, but Withings throws them in with the rest of the package.

Now, there are some downsides, in addition to the cost. The first is that you're limited to 15 minutes of live streaming per day. This surprised me, and Withings should do a better job of explaining that up front, but in practice it hasn't been an obstacle for me. UPDATE: No longer true, according to the Withing FAQ.

Also, if you're planning on using this as a pet cam, be aware that the sound and motion notifications are decidedly not tuned for that use. You'll mostly likely end up turning those off. If you're a pet owners who tries not to humanize their animal, you'll also have to grit your teeth and try to ignore the "WithBaby" app name and other baby-related UI and settings,

You should also be aware that although the camera supports three simultaneous viewers, you can't access it using a web browser. Everyone will need to use the free iOS app instead. I suppose that this might make the camera more secure (through obscurity) but I'd like to know more about how it actually works under the hood before making that assumption.

Finally, related to security, you should absolutely be aware that the audio feed is always live, even when the monitor is closed. As a baby monitor, this makes sense. But if you're pressing it into other uses, it could be a little creepy.

I hope this helps you evaluate if this is the webcam for you. It's impressive in a lot of ways, puzzling in some others, but overall a very high quality and a nice package.

See also: Monitor Your Home with an Internet Camera


Hacking The Scoop Coffee Maker

The Hamilton Beach's Scoop Coffee Maker is a great single-serve coffee machine. I like it a lot, as I never drink more than a cup at a time, and clean-up is super simple. Just dump the used grounds and rinse a couple of parts under the faucet.

I do like a very strong cup, however, so I was intrigued when the Amazon reviews mentioned that adding a paper filter could help with that. I bought some Aeropress micro-filters from Sur La Table and I really like the results. Just drop a single-use filter in the bottom part of The Scoop's grounds assembly. The resulting cup is a bit stronger, as the filter slows the brewing process slightly, and it traps more grounds. (Particularly if you're using expresso grind, like I do.) I guess it does add slightly to the clean-up, but flicking the filter into the trash is hardly onerous.

Don't take this as suggesting that the Scoop is somehow flawed; it's not. This is just a clever way to tweak its results a little. The Scoop, and this hack, are both worth your consideration.


TextExpander: Links to Amazon with affiliate code

Brett Kelly recently posted his TextExpander snippet for creating links to Amazon products and automatically including an affiliate code. It's an impressive bit of hoop-jumping and is quite handy.

I take a completely different approach that works for me, although you might still prefer Brett's.

In my version, you define a expansion like this:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/%clipboard/YOUR_AFFILIATE_CODE

Define your trigger as you like, I use "pamazon".

To use this, go to a product's Amazon page and copy the product's ISBN (if it's a book) or the ASIN (if it's not a book) to your clipboard. The numbers are found in the "Product Details" section of all Amazon listings.

Type your trigger, and instantly, TextExpander spits out the full-formed URL to the product, complete with your affiliate code.

If you'd prefer a more verbose write-up of this tip, here's an older description of how to set it up. Also, you might be interested in: A tip for using Plain Clip with TextExpander.


The city that works

Residents of Chicago, like those of any big city I'm sure, love to gripe the quality of services. It's practically an American pastime. But this is not one of those occasions. It's a story that, in fact, is almost unbelievable in its efficiency and timeliness.

On Saturday, a light pole on my street came crashing down. It wasn't hit by a car or anything like that. It just, well, it just fell over. This happened just a few minutes before 5:00PM. (Later examination revealed severe rust along the concrete fittings.) Surprisingly, it fell in such a way that nobody was hurt nor any property damaged. (Good News #1) But it sure made a heck of a racket.

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I immediately picked up the phone to report the problem. While I did this, two of my neighbors teamed up to drag the pole out of the road. Once that was done, one got a broom and began sweeping up the debris. (Good News #2)

The city dispatcher I spoke with sent the police, who arrived in just 10 minutes or so (Good News #3) and spent several minutes at the scene, most of which were on the phone or radio.

Within 30 minutes a two-person city crew arrived and temporarily restrung and fixed the broken power line. (Good News #4) Electricity on the block didn't seem to be impacted; I think the line simply connects the street lights in series. This meant that the whole block of street lights wouldn't be out.

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By early Monday afternoon (less than 48 hours later), a four-person crew erected a new pole and streetlight. (Good News #5).

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I'm sure it doesn't happen this smoothly and quickly every time, but bravo, City of Big Shoulders.

The only tiny downside is that when I called for assistance, after dispatching the officer, I was transferred to another number and told to report the problem there, too. I was on hold for 20 minutes and eventually got transferred to a number that rang one, then disconnected. Given the situation with the heatwave, I guess that's not a shock.


Password Wallet: Auto-typing Secrets

I've been using Password Wallet since 2001. It's installed on all my computers and devices. I've recommended it to dozens of people over the years, and those that have taken my advice have also become satisfied users.

The other day I was experiencing a small UI glitch in the Mac version, so I emailed tech support. I've always gotten excellent tech support for the product whenever I've needed it. This time was no exception. In describing the problem, I outlined how to re-create it. The response stunned me. In addition to acknowledging the bug I was reporting, I was told about a feature that I didn't know existed. In over 10 years of use, I somehow missed this it.

Let me back up a bit. One of the best features of Password Wallet is its "auto typing" support. When you visit a website that requires you to login, you can have it enter your credentials. It's fantastic. But over the years, some websites have gotten more sophisticated than a simple username and password. And, on occasion, I come across a website where the login is so poorly designed that I thought Password Wallet couldn't handle it. I was wrong. The simple answer is that you can tell Password Wallet how to enter multiple, or strangely specified, credentials. Just use the pop-up menu next to the fields where you enter your login information. You can insert reverse tabs, pauses, and more.

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Wow. Very cool and useful. Who know?