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Workflow…. another great iOS automation tool

Workflow…. another great iOS automation tool

If you have been following along, you may have read my blog about IFTTT.  It is a great little automation tool that lets you hook one activity to another (IE, when I change my Facebook profile photo, set my Twitter profile photo to match).  I use it a lot, but I have also found it leaving my wanting a bit.  Sometimes I want to do a few things, I want to trigger a chain of events, etc.  Then I came across Workflow.

Workflow is a neat little app that lets you create workflows or a chain of events you want to run.  You create them, and then you trigger them using a button in the app, using an action extension, a today widget, or even using the companion app on your Apple Watch.  It has a bit of a learning curve, but it allows you to do complex workflows with multiple steps using multiple apps.  My only knock in it is that it can be a bit glitchy and I don’t like how it looks while it is executing a workflow.  I wish you could make the screen a little more user friendly…. run the actions in the background rather than watching it progress.  Having said that, I can overlook those two drawbacks because it is such a powerful little application.

I have written a couple workflows that I use quite often.  The first is my “Send Location” workflow.  When you run this handy little workflow, it starts by asking what kind of location you want want (Navigon, Google Maps, Apple Map, or text Lat,Long).  You then enter a title for the location you are (My Work, Home, Record Store).  It then pops open the camera for you to take a picture.  After taking the photo and confirming, it takes all the information you entered and creates a new txt message with that picture and URL, ready for you to enter a recipient and send.  The person that received the message will get that link to the exact coordinated you are at with a picture of where you are.  I use this often when I want to explain where I am or how to get to me.  The person can just open that link and it will give them directions to where I am and a picture to know what to look for when they arrive.  Powerful stuff right?

Another great one I use is for making a QR code to a web address.  This on is very simple.  When I’m in safari and I want to make a QR code to the address I’m visiting, I run this extension.  It takes the web address, asks for a dimension, and then creates an email with the created QR code as an attachment.  Very handy for making quick QR codes on the fly.

I’m on a few web forums, that use some standard codes for images.  It I want to upload a few pictures to a post, this is a great little utility.  This lets me pick a photo (or photos) from my phone, uploads to a cloud space at a manageable size, and then copies the code for use in the forum to display those pictures in the post.  Super handy.

And lastly, if you have ever shared a photo on Instagram to Twitter you will notice it doesn’t actually share the picture, but a link to your Instagram URL.  That bugs me.  So I made this little utility to take the last photo shared on your Instagram account, and create a twitter post with that picture (and description) from your Instagram feed.  Pretty handy.

So maybe these few workflows will get your creative juices flowing for things you might want to automate.  Or maybe you just want to try the workflows I have created.  I have included them below for you to import if you like.  Give them a try, and let me know if they are useful for you.

All for now -J

Make QR Code

Share Photos On Forum

Instagram to Twitter

Send Location

Best Phone/Ipad mount?  Look for the magnet

Best Phone/Ipad mount? Look for the magnet

Doc Artisan Magnet Mount

If you have been following along, you would have already read my blog post about Stocard, software I use for managing all my rewards cards without carrying them in my wallet.  In that post I briefly talked about my iPhone Wallet case, the sport wallet from Doc Artisan.  Months later, I still love this wallet case.  It is high quality, has enough locations to hold my ID and a couple cards and a bit of cash.  It is a perfect way to minimize your pocket bloat.  The other thing I love is that the phone is held in this case via magnet, so it is simple to remove.

Cheapo Headrest Mount

It is this simple magnet mount that I became enamored with.  I bought their matching magnet mount to put in my car.  So when I get in the car, I pull the phone away from my wallet and tap it to the mount and off I go.  Super simple.  It is easy to rotate as you just pull the phone off and reattach on its side.  It is strong, I haven’t lost the phone driving in our Saskatchewan roadways.  It just works.  Since I loved it so much, I bought a second for the other vehicle and dropped a metal plate in Erin’s phone case so she too can use the mag mount.

 

Cheapo Ball Magnet Mount

Once I got these two mounts in the vehicle I got to thinking about the iPad.  When we travel, we somethings attach the iPad the headrest of the passenger seat so Cole can watch a show or two.  The cheap mount I bought at the time wasn’t’ great.  It didn’t fit around the child case we have on the iPad (a Snugg kids case, we highly recommend).  So it was a pain in the *ss to use.  Also, when the show ended or it was time to take it away, it was difficult for a person in the front seat to manage.  So I looked around for a magnet solution.  I didn’t find anything, but luckily most of these magnetic mounts you buy on ebay/aliexpress/etc are cheap and use the same magnet ball mount and the cheapo headrest one also used a ball mount.

Vtin 2 in 1

So I ordered a few the cheap magnet mounts like pictured for a project.  When they arrived, I found the ball mount matched, so I attached to my cheap head rest mount.  The idea was great, but the iPad with the metal plates attached was just a bit heavy for the mount.  Bumps caused the iPad to shift as you drove.  So I did a little engineering….  I took two of the magnet mounts, attached them to part of an old hockey stick and then mounted that to the headrest.  SUCCESS!  Now the iPad is stable inside its case and attached to the headrest.  And now if we need the iPad from the back seat, it is a simple grab and pull.  I loved the concept but the look was a little ugly.  I did finally find a dual head mount that matched my needs.  I ordered a from Vtin 2 in 1 mount from Amazon.  I removed the dual head from the suction mount and attached to the headrest mount and we are off and running!

Now I have a left over suction mount….. what to do with that?  Well I took the head off of the cheapo ball magnet mount I had purchased and attached to the suction cup.  This is now a desk mount for me.  I can tap my iPad or iPhone and it is mounted to my desk at perfect display angle!

Gone are the days of clamps or sleeves for devices for me.  Now when I have a device I want to mount, I just toss in on of the metal plates and it becomes compatible with my many mounts around the house and vehicles.  My next task is to build an under cabinet magnet mount so we can attach the iPad for recipe reading or music listening.

So if you are looking for a great mounting solution.  Look for the magnet.  And avoid the ones that require some special adapter attached to your device.  If it takes anything other than a thin metal plate, skip it.

All for now,

J

 

Raspberry Pi – the little gadget that could

Raspberry Pi – the little gadget that could

Be forewarned….. this is gonna get a bit techy.

This past weekend I was home alone.  Erin was off to Medicine Hat for a wedding shower, and Cole was at the lake visiting Grandma and Grandpa.  I don’t often get a solo weekend to myself, so I did what any guy *batching it* would do….. work on the computer?  I spent a good chunk of time on the weekend (when I wasn’t watching baseball, football and catching up on Making a Murderer) tweaking another project on a Rasperry Pi.  I have 3 in the house and another couple on the way (upgrades).

What is a Raspberry Pi you ask?  I talked about it briefly in a previous blog post.  It is a small, barebones, low power computer.  It comes with a board/cpu/memory/usb ports/sd card slot/video out/nic (and wifi/bluetooth on the model 3).  No case, no keyboard, no power, no storage.  But it is all about the size of a wallet and can be had for around $50.  These little mini computers are just perfect for building projects that require low power (you can run from battery if you like), small footprint, and little storage.  Since initially being released a few years back, they have upgraded the machine to be more powerful and have a few more bells and whistles while keeping the same price point.

At the moment there are 3 projects I have worked on using a Raspberry Pi:

best-kodi-addons-plugins[1]Openelec/Kodi

This is what I started with.  I have a big storage server (unraid, a topic of a future blog post) that I have all my media on (TV/Movies/Music) so I was looking for a small/low powered computer to hook to my TV and allow me access to all those items.  Openelec was a perfect fit.  It was a relatively simple install to an SD card.  Then you hook up to your TV and off you go.  The Pi has an HDMI port built in so it was a simple hookup to the TV, pointing Kodi to my network storage and it was pretty much setup.  If your TV supports CEC (pretty much all new TVs do) you will even be able to control the device with your TV remote.  It is a great/low cost way to access all your media you have available.  If you hook up an external drive to the Pi you can run everything right from there.  With Kodi you can add a tonne of plugins.  There is streaming, integration into other devices, etc.  There is so much it can do.  This is a great way to get started in the Kodi world.  If you want a full featured home theatre computer, her is a great project to look in to.

RasPlex

plex1Once I set up my Plex server (see my previous post), I wanted something that integrated a bit better than Kodi did (with PlexBMC/Kodi plugin, which works OK if you want Plex with Kodi).  RasPlex is an alternative project to take your Raspberry Pi and make it into a Plex client.  Again it hooks direct to your TV with HDMI and with a CEC TV you can control with your TV remote.  If you get the new Model 3 Pi you have wifi built in.  Otherwise you need to hook up to your network via a cat5 cable or an add on wifi usb device.  Setup is even simpler.  If you have a Plex server already running, it is usually as simple as writing the SD card, hooking up to your TV/Network and powering on.  Then you are off and running.  If you run a plex server, this project is an absolute must for the TVs in your house.  RasPlex is one of the best clients around.

 

RetroPie

z9mi595[1]RetroPie is my latest project.  RetroPie allows you to hook up video game controllers to your system (usb/bluetooth), install rom dumps of old video game systems, and then allow you to start gaming like you did in the old days.  Lots of old systems are supported.  I spent the better part of my weekend configuring it to run Nintendo, Gameboy, Gameboy Colour, Super Nintendo, Sega Master System, Sega Genesis, Turbo Graphics 16, Nintento 64, TRS-80 CoCo (my first computer as a kid), Sony Playstation and more.  It requires a lot of patience and some techy know-how to get setup, so it isn’t for the faint of heart.  But with a little time invested you can re-live your youth with this system.  Some folks have taken this to the next level, building fancy stand up arcade boxes to house this Pi and give your basement rec-room that vintage arcade feel.  Once I get the project set up the way I want…. I may even tackle that as a project.  For anyone that lives the old retro gaming vs the new systems, this project is a must.

OpenHab

OpenHab is my next planned project.  I have a few devices that are taking advantage of automation.  I have a couple lights on remote.  I plan to expand adding other devices (smart thermostat, computer controller, etc).  The OpenHab server (which you can run on Raspberry Pi) will allow you to manage all those devices and control with phone/computer/controllers.  In there you can write programmatic control of your devices (turn the lights on at random times while you are gone, email me if someone opens the door, phone me if the furnace quits, etc).  I’m pretty excited to get this one going.

 

So that is a summary of the projects I have on the go, but there are many more on the net.  Many peripherals have been built for the Pi that have allowed people to use them in new/creative ways.  Touch screen monitors, environmental sensors, robotic controls, unique power systems with device control are just a few.  People are building smart touch screen calendars and smart mirrors for the home.  Others are building smart in vehicle entertainment systems.  Security monitoring, portable gaming, inexpensive internet appliances, the combinations are endless.  And you can pretty much get started for under $100 all in (that will get you a kit with Pi, case, power supply, memory card and cables).  If you are technically inclines at all, I highly recommend giving it a try.

 

Media Center Computer

Media Center Computer

So a while ago I talked about Plex, and my love of using it as a platform for sharing media.  I briefly talked about RasPlex/Raspberry Pi, but I thought it might make sense to expand on it a bit.  A quick refresher on Plex, it is a piece of server software that centralizes all your media on that server and can then stream all that media to any Plex clients you have available.  That works great for using Plex clients on your phone, your computer, etc.  But what exactly do I have hooked up to my TV(s)?

In my case, to access Plex from my couch I have to pieces of gear that are essential, a flirc, and a raspberry pi.  Here is a description of each:

1. 91BpaVqmwyL._SL1500_[1]Raspberry Pi – the raspberry pi is a tiny and cheap computer that was developed as an inexpensive way to build small computers that don’t draw a lot of power and can be used for many things.  There are a huge number of projects people have built using a Raspberry Pi (home automation controllers, video game consoles, smart picture frames, etc).  One of the projects for that platform is RasPlex, a software client to access Plex.  Another is OpenElec (Kodi, the platform for all those android tv boxes out there lately).  It is a great little device that has all you need for making a media center computer….. network connectivity, usb ports, hdmi output, etc. The new version even has onboard bluetooth and wifi.   (well almost everything, I’ll get to that in a minute)  You can buy one of these kits from amazon.ca for about $100.  So go, grab one of these from amazon, and then go download/install RasPlex on the memory card.  Hook up to TV with an HDMI cable and you are off and running.  If Plex isn’t your thing and you want to try Kodi instead, give the OpenElec project a try.  (I’ll do a Kodi blog one of these days to compare with Plex).  You will need to control the device by using an app on your phone/tablet, by using a specialized USB/Bluetooth remote, by using a USB keyboard, or ……

2. by using a Flirc.  This is what I use.  I wanted to use the same remote I use for my TV as I do for my media pc.  This fantastic little device will allow you to menu20-500x500[1]program any IR remote to control a computer by converting each IR signal to a button press.  So in my case, I set the AUX setting on my universal remote to be programmed to some random VCR code so that it sends out IR signals that don’t control any other device I own.  I then used the Flirc to record those signals and convert them to key presses.  Once done I plug in to the Pi and pressing the standard remote now controls the Plex client.  (Up/Down/Left/Right/Play/Stop on the VCR remote sends those appropriate key presses to control the computer connected to the TV.  It is awesome.  Only one remote, and it functions just like a store bought player device would.  That is the one thing missing from the Pi itself that I think is worth it for a media center PC, an IR receiver, and this is a smart one on steroids.  It will cost you $40-50 to get it here, but it is WELL worth it.

So that is what I have connected to my TVs in house.  This little machine gives me access to all my media from the comfort of my couch.  The interface is great and is works very slick.  If you are a techy and you want something a little more customized than a Roku or Apple TV for your streaming client, I don’t think there is a better platform.  And if you find it isn’t working for you in the future, you can always re purpose the machine into a fantastic other project (give RetroPi a look).

 

My favourite home media server… Plex

My favourite home media server… Plex

plex1If you have spent any time around me talking computer stuff, you have undoubtedly heard me talk about Plex.  I love Plex.  Today they released version 1.0 of the server, so I thought it was a fitting day to blog about it.  It is an amazing piece of software (well, several pieces of software that hook together actually).  Plex allows you to set up a home media server to manage/share your media such as music, movies, tv shows and photos.  You install the software (free) on a computer (Windows, Mac, Linux) and then point it at the folders you store your media in.  You need those folders to be somewhat separate (keep Movies/TV/Music in their own folder) and named in a way that makes sense (the filenames are used to do look ups).  The software will then go out to the internet and get all the pretty artwork and details about your media.    What format does the media need to be in? Pretty much any, the Plex server will handle any converting in the background if a player requires it.

plex2Once you have your media in Plex, you can then access that media using a Plex client.  There are LOTS of Plex clients available.  iOS, Android, Windows OS all have Plex clients available.  The new Apple TV has a client.  Xbox and Playstation have Plex clients.  Some Smart TVs and media devices like the Roku have a Plex client.  There is even a web version of the client, so you can use any web browser to act as a client. This essentially allows you to access any of the media stored on your Plex server from any of those Plex clients anywhere you have a network connection, AND if your internet is fast enough, anywhere you have internet access!  You can even share your media to a friend that is running a Plex client.

What that means is that in our house, we have access to plex3all our media on every TV, computer, tablet, and phone.  I can start watching media on one TV, and then resume it on another.  Once I watch a show, it marks it as watched so I don’t have to remember where I left off.  And if you don’t have a network connection or don’t want to use up all of your mobile data?  Well some of the clients support using Sync to put those files on your device before you leave the house.  It requires the purchase of a Plex Pass subscription for that, but it is highly worth it (I bought a lifetime subscription).  We always have a few shows and moves on the iPhones and iPads for emergencies or when we travel.  Nothing calms a toddler down quicker than being able to watch his favourite show.

Hmmm…. but if all of your media is on a server, what could the kids stumble across?  Well Plex thought of that too.  You can set up user switching for everyone that has access in your house and keep content locked down from some users.  You can set up an account for your kids so they don’t have access to anything but kids shows, or shows movies G.  All very handy.  Again, another feature of the Plex Pass.

So I did say I have access to all my media on all my TVs.  Well I don’t have Smart TVs in the house (yet) so I had to add a little additional hardware/software to do it.  If you are an iOS household and have an Apple TV, you can use the plex client on your iOS device to airplay to your Apple TV.  Newer Apple TVs have a Plex client you can install and control directly with the Apple TV remote.  But I don’t like having to depending on using my phone or ipad to watch.  So I bought a couple cheap Raspberry Pi computers and installed RasPlex on them.  It is a dedicated (and free) client for the Raspberry Pi computer.  You can then use any of your devices to remote control the plex player, or you can get a remote to control the RasPlex computer just like you would a DVD player or PVR.

So as you can see, it really is an awesome piece of software and what I consider a must for anyone that has a large collection of media to manage.  There are even more features available (Channels of content, auto photo upload, etc) that I currently am still learning about.  It truly is a must for the techy home media enthusiast.  Where you get all your media from will be your problem to solve, but once you have something started and organized, this is a must to put on top of it.

And what do I use for a computer to store all these files and run my Plex Server?  Well that is a story for another time 🙂

All for now,

Jared

PS – And as a reminder, buy the Plex Pass!  It is soooooo worth it, and it supports the hardworking developers behind this project.

GPS – My phone…. it gets me where I’m going

GPS – My phone…. it gets me where I’m going

So, you may or may not be away of this, but most modern smart phones have GPS built in.  It can tell where you are when the location services settings for your phone are turned on.  It generally drains the battery when it is running, but it offers many useful functions.  Your pictures can tag where you are when they are taken, you can check-in at your location on Facebook to show where you are shopping, you can have different events fire off when you are entering or exiting a particular area.  More and more people are writing cool little tools and functions to take advantage of this useful hardware piece.  I’m sure you’ve opened up the maps application on your phone (Apple Maps, Google Maps) and found it can tell you where you are, and even give you driving directions where you are going.  It’s great, but it generally requires a data connection (internet access) the entire time you travel.  While that is becoming less and less of an issue with modern data plans and cellular coverage, it can be an issue it areas of the country, and if you are travelling outside of Canada can really cost you big bucks while roaming.  I’ve also fund the interface to not be as nice as some of the dedicated GPS systems on the market.

NavigonSo I bought an application for my navigation purposes.  I use an application called Navigon.  Navigon has been in the market for a while, making dedicated GPS systems for car navigation, and are now owned by Garmin, a name I’m sure you will recognize.  They make a great (and not that cheap product).  I purchased the Navigon North American edition (maps available for US and Canada).  It is a $60 app (look for it on boxing day and other holidays as it can sometimes be 50% off) and if you have family sharing or multiple devices you only need to purchase once.  Then inside the app, you use the map manager to choose the maps you want to install (the areas you plan to travel).  You can change those maps at any time.  There is an add one you can buy to then get fresh maps every time they release one (about once a quarter).  Once the maps are there, you don’t need a cell connection any more to work.  If you roam to the US or if you are in an area with no coverage, you can still navigate.  Points of interest, gas stations, restaurants, etc are all available to so you have information available if you arent online.  This has come in very handy to me.

GlympseI installed this on my phone as well as my wife’s.  She uses it all the time for work.  If you have bluetooth in your car, it can actually announce directions even when you aren’t listening to your phone for music.  Very handy.  It’s also nice to have the GPS on your hip at all times and not be tethered to your car’s navigation system or carrying around another device.  The device also has a couple other nice features I use regularly.    One is that it integrates with an app called Glympse which allows you to share your travel with another person.  Gone are the days when you have to “phone us when you get home” with your parents.  Just send them a glympse and they can watch your travel, stops and all.  (internet needed for that).  The other feature I like is the app allows opening with coordinates from a URL scheme.  What does that mean, well simply I can use the app to send anyone that has Navigon a link to a specific spot and it opens  in their app to start navigating to me.  If you have coordinates for a location, you can pass those in to the app to directly pick that spot to navigate to.  And for me, I used one of my other fancy automation tools to write a little program that lets me quickly take a picture and send the coordinate to a friend so they can quickly open the link and begin navigating to my location.  Great for those “Come and get me, here I am, I’ll be standing here” type conversations.  (Don’t worry, I’ll share in an upcoming blog)

So if you are looking for something with offline navigation that is a bit more robust than the standard built in applications, I highly suggest purchasing this app.  It is fantastic.  I would never consider buying a standalone GPS again.  It does have an app for Android, Windows Phone, and iOS.

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