Amazon Echo joins the household

My husband is a tech-geek. He loves the tech gadgets. He has a 3D printer and all sorts of other stuff – much of it I am not sure what it is or why we have it. So when Amazon introduced the Amazon Echo back in November, he wanted one. But they were doing it by lottery. When they draw your name, you have 7 days to purchase your Amazon Echo. If you have Prime it is $99 (limited time offer). If you don’t, it costs $199.

Finally, in January, he got notice that it would be here in February. It arrived in a rather unassuming little brown box.

What is an Amazon Echo?

IMG_2955An Amazon Echo is a 9 1/4” tall black cylinder device that works with voice recognition. Think of it as a virtual home assistant. You can ask it for information, music, news, weather and even a joke. As soon as you use the wake word – your choices are Alexa or Amazon – the device is ready to answer your question. (Note you must have an Internet Connection to use the Amazon Echo as it stores its information on a cloud. It also must be plugged into a power source.)

Some things you can say to your Amazon Echo:

Set an alarm for eight a.m.

What is the weather like?

Play the Indiana Jones theme.

Add “shampoo” to my shopping list.

Play “Susan’s favorites” playlist

Add “Fix the shower” to my to-do list

You can stream music from Spotify, iTunes, Pandora as well as Amazon Music, Prime Music and iHeartRadio. (The sound quality is excellent and you can adjust the volume by just issuing a command.) You can even access your shopping or to do lists via your mobile phone or tablet.

Reviews

Before we decided to buy one, we checked several independent sites for reviews. Most of them were pretty positive. And the good thing is the Amazon Echo continually learns and expands what it knows so hopefully it will only get better.

Our experience

One of the first things we had to do is change the wake word for our Amazon Echo. It comes defaulted to “Alexa” but that is Lexie’s name so we had to go with the only other choice it allows – Amazon. That means if we ever use the word Amazon, the device turns on. And yes, that has come up in a conversation in front of the Amazon Echo.

The kids enjoy asking our Amazon Echo to tell them a joke.

Has our Amazon Echo gotten a lot of use? Well the first few days yes. It was the “new” item of the house. But as time goes by we don’t use it that often. There are times it can’t answer a question or misunderstands what you say. Using Siri on our iPhone is sometimes faster.

For $99, it is a cool device. I am not sure I would pay $200 for it.

Why the Otterbox Commuter is so worth it

When I got my iPhone 4 back in December of 2011, one of the first things I did was look for a cover that would protect the phone if I (or more likely, one of my kids) dropped it. I had heard Otterbox phone cases were very popular and after reading reviews decided I needed one.

Otterbox Commuter Series Hybrid Case for iPhone 4 & 4SThese cases are constructed of a high-impact polycarbonate exoskeleton with an impact-absorbing silicone layer. I went with the Commuter series because it was less bulky than the higher rated Defender series.

I must say that I am so glad that I bought this. It has done a tremendous job of protecting my phone. Yes, the phone has been dropped numerous times with no damage. Well, at least no damage to the phone. But the Otterbox outer shell has cracked several times. But it is better that a $30 cover breaks than a $200 phone, right?

And the best news is that Otterbox offers a warranty for the first year of purchase. IMG_1775You just send them the date of purchase and a few photos of the problem and within days, they ship you a new product. I replaced my first Otterbox through the warranty but by the time the new one cracked, the warranty was up.

No problem, I simply went on Amazon and bought a new one. This was April of 2013. In July, my phone fell off my lap at the Circus, cracking the case. (Again, no damage to the phone.) I got my warranty replacement and not less than two weeks later I again found a crack in the case. Otterbox was great and sent me yet another replacement at no charge.

That one lasted me until right after Christmas when I noticed another crack in the case. I don’t even recall dropping the phone, but I quickly sent in my photo of the damage. One day later, I received an email that my new case was being shipped to me.

So this is one $30 purchase that has resulted in three replacement cases. Now I guess someone could think that this means there is something wrong with the Otterbox cases. But I don’t think so. Just think about the damage that could have happened to my phone without the case. I would much rather keep replacing the cover than have to replace my $200 phone. In my book, the Otterbox Commuter is definitely worth it.

The fun of an underwater camera (SVP WP6800 review)

In the summer, we spend a lot of time trying to stay cool at the pool or the water park. We usually make a trip to the beach too. Of course, the kids do a lot of photo-worthy stuff in the water. Taking your digital camera or phone with you to these locations can be risky as one errant splash could damage it.

dicapcIn the past, I have used a plastic cover over my digital camera. I used this one by Dicipac but the smallest one never fit my camera right, and that caused a black ring

Photo taken last summer with DicaPac cover on camera.

Photo taken last summer with DicaPac cover on camera.

to appear in some of my pictures which I would then have to crop out. (It has great reviews and I think would work wonderfully if I had a camera that fit it.)

This year as I was looking for a new digital camera I stumbled across an inexpensive waterproof digital camera that had decent reviews (3.2 stars on Amazon). I found the SVP WP6800 on Amazon for $52 but then bought it off Ebay brand new for just $36 and free shipping. I figured at that price, I had to try it.

water cameraThe SVP WP6800 is an 18 mega pixel camera with a 4x digital zoom and a 2.4” LCD display. It is waterproof up to 3 meters in depth.  It also records video and comes in pink, black and blue. (I have the blue one and love the color.)

I bought it back in January and this June tested it out at the beach, the pool and the water park. Is it the best camera? No. Is it fun to take pictures in and under the water? Yes. Do I think it was worth the $36? Definitely.

IMG_0036I thought the pictures taken looked good though some of them seemed a bit darker than they should. There is a delay between pressing the button and taking a shot so while trying to catch my kids jumping into the pool, I often took a picture of just the splash. And in the bright sunlight, I had a hard time seeing the image on the screen and had to take the pictures “blind.”

One of the biggest complaints on Amazon was the battery life. The camera uses 2 AAA batteries. I was able to go to the pool and beach twice on one set of batteries. IMG_0058Since it went through the first set fast, we purchased some cheap batteries, and those lasted only a IMG_1137[1]few minutes each time. One reviewer said he got better life out of quality batteries designed for electronics so that may be what I try next.

If you are thinking of buying this camera, note that it uses a micro SD card. Luckily, we already had one at our house as well as an adapter to use it in our computer’s SD card reader.

float bandJust so I don’t lose the camera at the beach or water park, I did buy a floating wrist strap for $6 off Amazon.

Even though there are a few negatives (battery life and dark LCD screen), I think the pros and fun of taking pictures in and around the water and not having to worry about your camera make this a worthwhile investment.

Authors thrive on reader feedback

As an author and a blogger one of the things I love most is reader feedback. It is nice to have someone comment on your work. After all who doesn’t like a compliment? (OK – all reader feedback isn’t positive, but you take the good with the bad.)

Blog

At the end of most blog posts is a place for readers to comment about the post. It is awesome when someone mentions they not only liked the post but learned something. It could be as simple as “Good advice. Thank you.” Or they can add their own experience or story. This happens most often for me when I write about parenting (every Monday).

Recently, I also received an email from a mom who read my blog about Lexie’s birth. It was nice to connect with someone who had a child with similar medical conditions. In fact, it inspired two additional posts. One ran on Monday about Situs Inversus and an Interrupted IVC, and another will run in a week and a half about Polysplenia.

Books

The best compliment you can give an author is to write an honest review of their book. But in lieu of that, I also love to receive email messages from readers. I love when they tell me what they loved about the book and how they couldn’t put it down.

Recently, I had one reader say that her love for cats drew her to my short story, The Search. She loved it so much that she went on to read my trilogy. Another reader even suggested I do a follow-up  trilogy or at least one more book with those characters. (And I am now considering doing just that because I too love them and have an idea for a new adventure, but that will have to be after my current work in progress.)

But you don’t have to email an author or do a review to show your support. Even sending out a tweet about the book or passing along one of my tweets is greatly appreciated. So if you don’t normally write reviews or have never considered emailing an author, I encourage you to do that. You just might make someone’s day.

Gifting a copy of your ebook

gift a copyWhether it is for a prize, or because you are sending it to someone for review, you may need to send your e-book to someone else. Now you may have a mobi file, a PDF of your book or even an ePub version but there are benefits to gifting your reviewer a copy, especially if it is on Amazon.

For those of you unsure how to gift a copy of your book, here is how to do it on both Amazon and Smashwords. For both methods, you will need the recipient’s e-mail address.

Amazon

To send a copy of your e-book on Amazon, go to your book’s page and click “Give as a Gift” button near the buy button. amazon giftEnter the email address of the person to whom you want to send the book, or you can enter your email address and then forward it to the recipient. (I use this method since my Amazon account is under my real name, and I want to send the book using my pen name.)

The recipient will receive an email that they have reviewed the book as a gift. When they accept it, the e-book will be delivered to their Kindle device or app.

If you are sending this to a reviewer, I have heard that recipients can decline the book and elect to receive a gift certificate instead so make sure you only gift books to people who have expressed a willingness to receive, read and review your book.

Of course by gifting a book, you have to pay full price for the book. But you do receive the royalty from the sale so basically your cost is your sales price less your royalty. If your e-book sells for $2.99 with a 70% royalty, your cost will be just over $.90 (Amazon’s 30% plus a small download charge, usually a few cents). That is a small price to pay, especially when you compare it to the cost of printing and mailing a paper book.

Now you may be wondering why you want to send your book this way instead of just sending them the mobi file. In the case of a reviewer, when they post their review on Amazon, it will note “Amazon Verified Purchase.” Showing this can add credibility to the reviewer.

Smashwords

Now with Smashwords you have two options for giving someone a copy of your book. You can gift them a copy similar to the method above or your can create a coupon making the book free. The good thing about Smashwords is that the reviewer can pick which e-book format they need.

To gift a copy, go to your book page and select “Give as a gift.” smashwords giftYou will enter the recipient’s name and email address, or you can enter your own information if want the notification sent to you. Once you have completed the gift purchase, your recipient will receive an email with instructions on how to redeem their gift. They will need to have a Smashword account to access the book. If they don’t have one, they will be promoted to set up a free account.

If you choose to create a coupon to do a giveaway or to offer review copies, you just have to ensure that the expiration date on your coupon is far enough away that the recipient has time to use it. In other words, don’t make it a few days after you give them the coupon. You will need the expiration date a few weeks away.