Category Archives: Reviews

Hot Take: PicoBrew Pico Review

[The “Hot Take” qualifier added as I’ve only used it twice, among other things.]

I got my Kickstarter edition PicoBrew Pico device in late August, and have brewed up my 2 packs that were part of the Kickstarter rewards. Here’s my take.

Being Early Bird backer #205 I got my machine pretty quickly. A hardware kickstarter like this was bound to be delayed and the guys at PicoBrew didn’t disappoint. Overall I think they did a good job on the Kickstarter*. They conveyed enough information to keep us sated, although it was not as frequently as some people may have wanted. More importantly the delay was not too too long, but it was long enough that my folks who retired to Taiwan missed out on the first batch, as they had to leave the same week when my package arrived.

I realized part of the delay has a lot to do with getting the Pico Packs set up so they can crank them out fast. With fast brewing you can turn around a batch in a week, and it ain’t all that much beer per batch–about 1.3 gallons give or take. Recently they just emailed all backers that the Pico Pack marketplace is in business, and it was definitely not too soon for people who have already started brewing.

Aside: What is kind of tricky is that these batches of beer packs do have a shelf life, so I don’t think stocking up on them during the free shipping promo is the wisest. The order I placed a week ago has already shipped.

As for the main dealie of working and brewing the beer via Pico, well, overall I am satisfied but I think they fall short to be the Kureig of beer. As at least some were claiming that (none from the company). Regardless, there are a bunch of things they could improve, and it depends on the philosophy behind the point of the Pico device.

I feel what they have created is not so much Kureig, but just a Bread Machine. You gotta put the stuff in the thing and let it cook, and the biggest gain out of a bread machine, is that you can customize it to a degree and you can have very freshly baked bread whenever you want, provided the prep is done ahead of time. I don’t know if you know this but beer is similar to bread that freshness counts for a lot in the taste, living up to the moniker liquid bread.

Prior to the Pico I’ve only made beer via canned wort mixes, so I don’t know all the pain of making beer from scratch, but that experience was sufficiently educational that I understand the overall process. Once you remove the whole creation aspect of beer making–everything related to the ingredients–it becomes a process where you simply “brew” it up and let it ferment.

That part is pretty simple and I think the Pico did a good job. What is lacking is kind of the rest. The racking process worked pretty well, and I had no issues except the serving keg’s serving plug had an issue. Using a CO2 cartridge is definitely better than bottle/keg conditioning.

The main problem I have with Pico is cleaning. It is a major time consuming aspect of brewing beer. It should surprise nobody but I think more importantly, this is a very manual task that the system doesn’t really explain to you in detail. The flushing of PIco system can take upward of 30 minutes cumulatively, not even using the first-time flush feature. That’s just running water through all the pipes, kind of. Then after brewing, you have to clean the brewing keg, which takes at least 30 minutes as you have to dissemble the keg (mainly the o-ring-sealed keg inlet and outlet). Then there’s cleaning of the serving keg. I got one of the racking pipe dirty and I’m not sure if I can clean it properly as some beer got stuck in it and now it has discolored. The best I could do is soak the inside with H2O2 and hope for the best. Maybe get a wad of wires and try to clean it out in the future?

So another thing they need is the ability to sell spare parts. It’s going to be necessary.

Given there is no good way to streamline the cleaning, each time I brew I spend over an hour just to clean the thing, and cleaning well is imperative to a good brew. I didn’t clean well after the first batch and my second batch didn’t come out as good as I’d expect, so there’s that.

Without going into the details, I think some of the steps can be streamlined, if some equipment were designed a certain way. The initial brewing process can be time consuming as well if you take care to clean each step. But these are not as big of problem to me as that Pico doesn’t do a lot to help you clean better in terms of what you needed to do to clean.

That said, none of these are permanent problems and they can improve on it even now. Selling parts. Selling cleaning kits (like the powder thing they recommend). Do a better job showing people how to clean. Improve some of their stuff so it’s easier to clean.

In that sense that’s what Kickstarter is about. You are beta-testing their kit in a way, and when I back stuff I count on the potential of things shaking out well, not just the pledged rewards. In a V2 Pico they should be able to address all these things, as well as their current online store.

On the value prospect of Pico, I think if you live near a well-stocked liquor store with a wide selection of brews, you probably won’t be missing much. I think the PIco Packs generally will break even with the same quantity of beer / beer type as ones you get in store. That doesn’t include the $500+ you invested in the kit however, and instead you have to spend hours cleaning to get about a 12-pack of beer. Actually usually Pico packs are a little more expensive than bottled.

The real promise Pico brings is the reverse-engineered recipes of other famous or limited edition brews. Think of it as an alternative to a liquor store instead of a replacement. There are countless microbreweries in the USA alone, and you can get entries from all over the world with this system. So in that sense Pico addresses the greatest driver for drinking microbrews–if everything pans out with PicoBrew’s large-scale plans–the ability to try a new beer forever. Or, that old beer you can’t find anymore. (Or, the beer that is sold only in certain breweries and draws lines hours long, ahem.)

To bridge the gap, Pico promises a sous vide kit. I hope that comes through soon.

As for the two Kickstarter reward beer packs: Tweatie and Buffalo Sweat…the milk sugar in the latter is a nice touch but it’s the batch I messed up. The Tweatie was a nice American beer however, and I rec that one.

*I have done enough Kickstarters I think, to be somewhat of a judge of these things.

Pebble Time Steel First Month Look

It’s actually only 3 weeks, oops.

I got the Pebble Time Steel gold version. My friends got the steel grey and black ones. They were definitely not as cool looking as the gold one. From a looks perspective the red leather band is a home run, paired with the gold. Black bezel also even looked OK like this.

And here we get to the heart of the problem with the Pebble Time Steel, and Pebble Time in general–that display just does not look good. Colors are dimmed and contrast is like 3/4 of what it was on the original Pebble. Why? Because the new display is a TFT LCD where the crystal layer has to be semi transparent in order to work passively and work with a backlight. When light is filtered partly by the LCD layer, this is how you generate different colors. The original Pebble is B&W, so it either completely blocked light or none at all, giving you better contrast than the Pebble Time screen. Both old and the Pebble Time has so-so viewing angle but the Time really loses out in the dark versus the original Pebble.

The Pebble Time Steel has the added problem of, I think, really demure styling. This watch would work well for women, if it’s a tad on the big side. But that also means it’s quite small as far as smartwatches go and great for people who doesn’t have manly wrists. It looked definitely more stylish than the original pebble, which is something people who dig the Pebble Steel might not prefer–that one is bigger and manly.

I think it does not lose to the Apple Watch on looks, side by side. It definitely does not look as manly, though, without that large crown and less angular styling. I think if you are the stereotypical urban hipster tho, it will look good.

Pebble recently unveiled the Pebble Time Round which looks wicked, but if it follows the same design language, it will be for people looking for a wristwatch for women or people who want something that’s design-wise smart but not aggressive. We don’t know what display it will have, but looks like it’ll be the same as the other Pebble Times.

Pebble Time’s display is slightly worse than Pebble Time Steel’s display because the steel forces the way the glass bond to the display to be closer. It improves the viewing angle and slight ups the contrast. I think this makes Pebble Time Steel a no-brainer choice over the Pebble Time pretty much all around. The styling isn’t even that different between the grey or black ones. They are really two watch lines that aren’t different enough design-wise to be saying you prefer one over the other, especially given the extra $150 you can get more battery life and more durability, and slightly improved display.

To be honest, functionality is already pretty OK for the Pebble. What has to be improved is the looks. I don’t think the Pebble Time and Pebble Time Steel has achieved enough to call it that. Maybe the PT Round? It is definitely differently looking.

As for the software, it’s faster and less buggy. It uses a different companion app than the Pebble/Pebble Steel. I run it on android, and it’s solid. What I don’t like is the timeline interface, because it’s kind of useless and I don’t want to be pressing a lot of buttons on the watch. Maybe once devs can hook better Pebble apps into it?

The new reply and voice dictate is definitely nice and I appreciate it, even if I don’t see myself using it just because it takes a little getting used to and I’ll have to force myself into doing it. Not a killer app but definitely cool once someone figures out how to integrate it into Google Now.

Battery-life-wise it’s great. Seven days minimum with a wonky PlexFit on it even.

I can get a Pebble Time Round for $200. I might bite. I don’t know. I dig that white one. Maybe for Christmas to give to somebody?

Moto X Pure Edition (Style) 2015 First Week Look

Received it last Friday, so I’ve had about 9 days with the phone as of this writing.

My last phone was the 2014 Moto X, so this is an incremental change. My biases are well-stated on this blog, but to sum it up: I don’t like phablets, I hate TouchWiz, and I am used to the vanilla variety of Android.

I haven’t really paid attention to CPU specs on phones. I still remember having a discussion with a friend about how he and his coworker dissed on people who wanted phones with good hand-feel, and would rather compare specs. I guess I’m biased against that kind of thought, because 99% of the use cases don’t even require that much processing power. My mom’s Moto G first generation still runs like a champ even browsing the web. Instead, increasingly it’s about the UX, starting from the build quality, hand feel, and the user interface and the stuff you put in there to satisfy use cases.

Let me just quote this:

Smartphones have become boring to me these days. They all can do the same thing; resolutions are high enough that they don’t really matter anymore; processors can handle everything you throw at them; batteries last nearly all day; and some of the latest cameras on Android handsets have essentially caught up with the iPhone

The funny thing is I jumped on the Moto X 2015 version because of CPU specs and better display. Enter IDOLM@STER Cinderella Girls Starlight Stage (DereSute for short, or SS). The spiritual successor of IDOLM@STER Shiny Festa married with Love Live School Idol Festival, this game does real-time rendering of 3D models dancing, and will take a chunk of not just your battery life but CPU. Plus since DereSute is a rhythm game, the interface is extremely unforgiving to any performance hiccups. Comparing the performance of this game on the 2014 Moto X and 2015 Moto X, the improvements are well worth it:

  • Moto X 2014 can run at full visuals (there are 4 levels you can choose from) for maybe 10 songs before running out of power, the 2015 version can do so about twice as long (I haven’t tried).
  • Moto X 2014 lags a good deal at highest level, Moto X 2015 not really at the second highest, and barely so at the highest.

Both Moto X features Qualcomm’s fast charging technology, so stick that 3.0A charger in there for 50% @ 15 minutes. It comes really handy for DereSute. But to put things into perspective; if I played Project Diva on the Vita and it uses up all the power after 20 songs, I’d think something is wrong with my Vita. So something is odd about this phone? For normal every day use I get through a day no problem, but I think I played DereSute everyday so it’s not a good measure.

Back to you regular programming. The new TFT screen takes getting used to; the contrast difference is the first thing that strikes me. I think it takes getting used to because I have to invert a lot of the app’s skins so it’s black-on-white rather than white-on-black as you’d with an OLED display. OTOH if people tell you 1080 is enough on a flagship phone display they are drunk or have never seen a good QHD screen on a handheld device. Maybe if your screen is 1/2 of the size of this one? The pixel density is highly appreciated. I think when those 4K screens comes out in a few months (Sony, LG, the Huawei Nexus) we’ll have some actual opinions to press against.

The size and heft of the 2015 Moto X is squarely in phablet territory. I have hands that are not very big–big for an Asian but not big for average White guy, so this thing is a challenge to use one-handed. The 2014 Moto X was already not quite an one-handed phone with the bumper, and the 2015 Moto X is just something I’ll have to get used to.

I opted for the leather back. it’s nice, and even more so if you take some time and put some oil on it… My dad put some special seed oil on it that he reserves for his hair and it actually changed the color tone of the thing, which makes it much closer to pigskin brown than the lighter brown you associate with autumn fashion…

I think the leather back makes the phone more slippery than if you opted for some grippy plastic, and with a big phone that’s recipe for drops. This year’s Moto X Pure Edition package comes with a bumper which is something you should put on immediately for this reason. BTW that bumper is not the greatest, but right now you don’t have a choice (I plan to swap it out soon I guess).

The camera is indeed much better than the 2014 X, but that doesn’t say a lot. I think we finally can call this camera “flagship” quality, but it doesn’t compare to what the latest iPhones can do. I’m going to ignore the “Siri” type functions, but Moto X has always been pretty good about this, including the latest iteration.

Dual speakers make playing DereSute nice and handy. If the phone is not plugged in my hand can get in the way of the ambient sensor and change the backlight, something to think about in general for all these phones. But this is where LCD screens kind of suck versus OLED screens, at lower brightness…

So, to sum it up:

Pro: It’s fast. Clean Android UX, Moto maker. With key accessories included it’s even more affordable than you think.
Con: Phablet and weighty, still can be faster and have more battery life for DereSute.

Smart Watch Battery Life

I’ve been thinking about this somewhat. The past six months I left my Pebble charger cable twice. Once I left it away from home so I had to deal with not charging my Pebble for about 10 days while the new one comes. Once I forgot to bring it with me on a trip so I had to borrow one to recharge the Pebble. By the way my Pebble Time Steel hasn’t shipped…probably because they have some problems not only with the watch band, but also the particular type of watch I ordered (gold).

At first, I never was a fan of smartwatches that hand battery life measured in hours. Days days days. That led me to buy a Pebble, since the transflective LCD technology allowed it to run for 5-7 days at a time. Living with the Pebble these past 2 years, I learned that, in reality, as most Apple Watch defenders would point out, it doesn’t matter on a daily driver sense. You go home, you can charge it overnight and get on with your life. Yes it’s one extra cable, so yes, if you travel or what not, or just live life in general, yeah, it’s one extra cable that you can forget/lose/break. None of that is a deal breaker in the sense that you can always pack a backup or have a spare cable somewhere. But it’s still not substitute to having the battery life.

Here’s the main problem. In the first world, smartphones are ubiquitous. Smartphone charging is not an issue. All the international airports I’ve visited had easy ways to let you charge your phone. Some even had cables right there so you didn’t need to go to the newsstand or Best Buy vending machine to pick up a cable if you needed one. Maybe Apple Watch cables will also be like that, but so far I don’t think that has been the case. And I don’t need to mention all the other Android Wear and Pebble watch cables.

And it’s okay to carry around a dead watch. It’s way less disruptive than carrying a dead phone. So it’s not a huge risk rationally. It’s just an irritation. Much more so than smartphones, however, watches breed physical habits and muscle memories. Wearing one for a few years then go a normal day without it and you’ll know what I mean. So to me it’s much more about the irritation of wearing a dead watch. Having a dead phone seemed just like a straight-up crisis. It’s not even in the same league.

The takeaway is if I had a watch that had a battery life of 2-3 days, the two instances I left a cable home or lost it or whatever, I would had to go without a smartwatch for days. Because my Pebble have like a 7 day battery life, I was able to use it during the stretch of days when I wasn’t able to charge it nightly. (I turned the watch off when I sleep instead.) Forgetting it on my IM@S 10th trip was funny because I knew one other guy who was going also had a Pebble, so I borrowed it from him for one night and it was all I needed to last 11+ days in Japan.

Maybe a sensible way to qualify “a couple days” of battery life to “a week” of battery life is in a construction sense. Having smooth metallic finishes or “clicky” crowns or fine leather or solid buttons are good, I think, and these workmanship qualities are desirable. In that sense I think a battery life long enough to not having to worry about not charging your watch is in the same category. A holy grail would be like, once a month or something. Or maybe some out-of-box thinking is required here.

The long answer to the battery life question applies not just to smart devices we carry but in general. At some level the CPUs and GPUs we carry in our smartphones will cap out, and technology today work hard at driving the power consumption of these moore’s law candidates. We might stick to the same # of transistors between generations of phones, but the power consumption drops. We are also making way on battery technology so we can carry more juice at the same size and weight limits. This just means battery life too has a cap somewhere, and that cap might not even be too far from where we are today. The real takeaway is that we need to learn how to rationally “calibrate” these numbers. What does 1 day or 12 hours mean in this context? It’s not even a linear relationship between x number of hours of battery life to desirability, or if a device’s battery life exceeds your power requirements by x hours, what value does it add, etc. It’s about measuring edge cases, analysis of risk, and figuring out what is a good value.

A busy end to 2014

I haven’t put up a blog post here in half a year because I got promoted at my job. Promoted in terms of work load but not so much pay? I don’t know. It got really busy.

I took the blogging down a notch both here and at the anime blog because I just don’t have the time and motivation after work. A lot of context switching suck my energies. I guess it’s also to say the work I’m doing at work is definitely more challenging and taxing intellectually, perhaps not in a technical sense but in an organizational sense.

At any rate, I purchased a Verizon Moto X 2nd gen on Black Friday using their $140 off coupon deal. I logged into the deal page maybe a couple minutes after clock hit 1pm Eastern and didn’t even lag a bit as I put in my entry code. GJ Moto. The Moto Maker experience is not 100% but overall the customization options are a great thing and a major distinguisher between this phone and the others on the market. Of course in exchange your phone is a little bit harder to buy, you have to wait for your gear to get Fedex’d from China, all that.

I probably should have purchased the developer phone instead of the carrier version of the phone. It’s a minor detail because the carrier experience on the Moto X is pretty clean, but the major difference here is that I have to wait for a Verizon patch instead of just being able to hack my way with xda forum’s support. Locked bootloader and all. At the same time, I opted for the football leather version of the Moto X, which is working out pretty well besides how it forces me to change my current car mount due to the limitation of the kind of case you can use with it sensibly. All because with a leather (or bamboo etc) back, it’s not really a good match with a traditional, full-body case. Using a bumper is perfectly okay, but it makes this big phone even harder to hold and nullifies the advantages of the tapered edges. Not to mention my magnet-driven car mount has nothing to stick the backing piece to. I’ll have to go back to the clamp style mount.

The other sort-of mistake I made was upgrading from 4.4.4 to 5.0. Android Lollipop is not ready from prime time. The new UI experience is pretty good actually, but not a drastic improvement from before. More just a drastic overhaul in notification that has some improvements. The issues so far are a penchant for background apps to close for no reason, and there’s a wifi bug that prevents me from connecting to my work wifi. I don’t know if it’s because of the switch they’re using or how it’s configured, but it just doesn’t connect.

Bugs and mistakes aside, this phone is very nice. The display is tops and the battery is adequate. It’s speedy and what not. The customized Moto app experience blows the Samsung one far and away. Should last me another couple years while I figure out how to refurbish my old phone, the cracked GS4.