Making outdoors easy: Gardening Gadgets & App

img_3321Not all of us have green thumbs, but fortunately, technology can help! There are some amazing gadgets that can help make life outdoors easy this summer, plus, we can count on technology to beautify our yards too.

TECH TALK JUNE 2On CTV Tech Talk this month, we looked at a few of these fun and helpful gadget picks.

Fatboy Transloetje Table Lamp

This chic lamp (above) looks like something worthy of a design magazine. Its acrylic form is transparent, allowing you to see the light bulb and electrical workings inside.  It’s operated by using a small, visible touchpad to turn the light on, off and to adjust levels of brightness. It has a rechargeable battery, making it wireless, so it can be used anywhere, including the yard.  Fatboy says it’s waterproof too.

Mpowered Inflatible Solar lanterns

So many creative uses! Blow up these versatile lights and float them in your pool, hang them from trees, or sit them on a table. Without air inside they pack flat, and a small solar panel in the top of the lamp means it’ll recharge all on its own. These are available in white, or colours; where with the touch of a button they can be changed to a variety of LED light colours. Add in the sparkle that’s part of this light, and you’ll create a stunning outdoor atmosphere.

Parrot Flower Power plant sensor

This genius gadget is a small forked spike that you jab into the dirt of your garden, or an indoor or outdoor potted plant. Just tell the stick-shaped gizmo what type of plant it’s watching over, and you’ll get customized reminders to water, add fertilizer, or to move it to a sunnier spot. If you’re always killing plants, this gadget will help you remember to caretake them, and possibly keep them alive much longer.

MiPow Garden smart solar light & candle

Mipow makes very easy to use lighting gadgets that are fun to have around the home (Read about their other lights here)

With the Garden light, you can leave it outside so that it’s constantly recharged by the sun.  Then once it’s at full power, you can control it with your smartphone, adjusting brightness and even changing it to cool colours.

The Candle is battery powered, but it lasts like crazy, thanks to low-energy LED lights.  The candle can provide a candlelight glow, or have it flicker in a variety of colours. It makes a perfect addition to an outdoor dinner table because it can’t be blown out by the wind, but (Fun Fact!) you can blow on the candle to turn it on and off! Plus, you can turn it over and use it to hold real tea lights too.

Best garden ID App! MyGardenAnswers!

Also on Tech Talk I mentioned a great app for identifying plants in your garden; it’s called My Garden Answers (available via the App store or Google Play too). You snap a photo of the plant, leaf or flower, and the database will tell you what it is!  Perfect if you inherited plants or moved into a new space – or if you just want to know the proper names of the things in your garden.img_2916

Winners of this month’s Tech Talk Contest are: Elaine Watt and Jonathan Howes.  CONGRATULATIONS and thanks for watching!


Parrot Flower Power plant sensor review

img_3081I’ve never considered myself a gardener, primarily because I can’t be patient enough to learn proper techniques for planting and caring for living things. I’ll plant a vegetable garden every year, but it’s total hit or miss whether something produces or not.
I’m also notorious for forgetting to water my hanging baskets, and then they curl up and die well before the end of the season.

This year, I feel like I can do better. But that’s because I have some technological help. I recently got a hold of a Parrot Flower Power plant sensor. It monitors whatever you’re growing, automatically, and sends you alerts when there’s something you need to tend to.

What Parrot Flower Power monitors

The Parrot Flower Power sensor monitors four key areas of data:

  • Light intensity: the sensor will measure light intensity to establish whether your plant needs more or less sun.
  • Ambient temperature: keeps an eye on the ambient temperature in its location and lets you know if the plant needs to be in a warmer or cooler location
  • Fertilizer: the sensor will measure the level of fertilizer required for soil salinity
  • Soil moisture: keep track of how wet or dry your plant’s soil is and know when you need to water, or when you’ve overwatered

The Parrot Flower Power sensor uses your smartphone or tablet and Bluetooth to connect to the cute stick-shaped sensor. Via the free app you’ll get all the updates you need direct from your garden.

img_3425The base of the sensor features a thin and narrow metal fork that will easily slide into any type of plant pot, or soil. To use it, you select the specific plant you are placing the sensor in, and whether it will be indoors or outdoors. (And if you need help identifying a specific type of plant, I highly recommend the Garden Answers app!)

Once the Parrot Flower Power is paired and connected with a plant, you need to wait about 24 hours for full data. You don’t need to stay connected to the plant during this time, the sensor will just zap the information to your smart phone so it’s ready next time you open the app. With that said, you can still get some limited and immediate ‘live data’ right away, such as what the overall moisture level is in the soil at the moment.

Testing the Parrot Flower Power

I found the device very easy to set up and use. You don’t even need to read the directions, since the Flower Power sensor is quite intuitive.

In my first round of testing, I wedged the device in an aloe plant in my living room. After the device had monitored the plant for about a day and found almost zero moisture in the pot, I dumped a cup of water into it just to see what would happen on the sensor. Using ‘live view’ in the app, I watched as the moisture level went through the roof as soon as the water hit the pot. Excellent! The sensor was working.

I left the Flower Power in there for about a week and then checked the graphs for the four key data points. I could easily see how long it took for the pot to dry out.  Also, during that time, I got an alert/push notification to my phone telling me the plant was in too little sunlight. The app advised me that if we were not merely experiencing bad weather, the plant should be moved to a sunnier location. Given we had just had four or five days of cloud and rain, I didn’t think there was much I could do, but I relocated the plant to a sunnier spot, and that seemed to help.

My next test was to stash the flower power sensor in a hanging basket out front of my house. These are the baskets I constantly forget to water, so getting an alert or reminder could mean I get weeks more life out of these expensive hanging planters.

While initially the water level was just fine, I did get an alert that the basket could use more fertilizer. That was a good one, since I rarely consider fertilizing my hanging baskets. A quick splash of some miracle grow later, and the basket was back in business. Alerts and push notifications to water the basket also kept it from dying early on.

It’s important to note that your phone will need to be within a certain distance of the sensor in order to receive data; so if it’s sitting out in a distant garden area, you’ll need to get within Bluetooth distance to sync your info.

The next tests for the Parrot Flower Power will be to drop the sensor in my vegetable garden; but that test will be a few weeks in the making, so for now, this is the review. I think this small and inexpensive gadget that can help black-thumb gardeners improve their skills. Got specific questions on how this gadget may work in your yard? Ask and I’ll answer them.

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Review: Sony MDR-XB950BT wireless over-ear headphones

Headphones are very personal. After all, of all the electronics we use, headphones are worn closest to you, right inside your ear canals in some cases. That’s why people are so passionate about their headphone choices, and it explains why a headphone loved by some will be unpopular with others; headphones are almost like electronic jewelry, so tastes and preferences are as varied as the designs.Sony MDR-xb950BT square headphones

I recently got a pair of the catchily named Sony MDR-XB950BT wireless Extra Bass headphones. What they lack in nomenclature, and maybe looks, they more than make up for in sound quality.

Sony MDR-XB950BT – What’s in the box?

The packaging is cool. The box opens up like a book, with the headphones displayed carefully and attractively inside. Inside the front cover of the book is a small hidden compartment where you will find your charging cable, auxiliary mini cable (if you want to forgo the wireless connection), as well as the necessary manuals and paperwork. That’s it.

About the Sony MDR-XB950BT

The headphones are wireless, using Bluetooth or NFC technology to connect to your smart phone or device. The headphones also feature and electro bass booster, a 40 mm driver unit which reproduces natural and powerful base, according to Sony.
The headphones will give you approximately twenty hours of play time from four hours of charging.

This is just a sample; Read the full review on the Best Buy Plug-In blog.

Watch the video review here:


Testing the Vitamix: is it worth the hype?

vitamix s55 I’ve heard the hype about Vitamix, mainly from people well enshrined int the cult of the uber-powerful blender. I haven’t believed it, to be honest.  I own a “regular” blender and it works just fine, thanks. Well, at least I thought it did.  Until the Vitamix arrived.

The Vitamix S55

The first tests I did involved smoothies.  Easy, right? One blender will do the same job as another, right?  Oh, how wrong I was.

The travel cup container.
The travel cup container.

I like using frozen fruit and fresh kale in my smoothies, however my blender will only chop the hearty greens so well.  Inevitably I’m choking down tiny kale fibers, or having them get jammed in the straw. Oh, and there’s usually some giant pieces of frozen fruit left in the bottom too.

Not with the Vitamix.  This blender is able to absolutely liquefy its contents, usually on just one blending cycle. That means no bits of kale, and no frozen chunks.

The Smoothie Test Comparison

I tried a test using both my old blender and the Vitamix where I added the same amount of ingredients to each machine, and ran them both for the same length of time (watch my YouTube video of the test results).

While the old blender did chop the fruit and frozen veggies, the overall texture was grainy, and there were still several medium sized chunks of fruit left in the drink. There was definitely more chewing to be done in this smoothie. In the Vitamix S55, there were a couple much smaller frozen chunks left, but the overall texture of the smoothie was silky; you’d never know there was any fruit, seeds or greens in the drink. In this test, I ran the old blender on its highest setting, and the Vitamix on its lowest smoothie program, but in daily use my preference when blending frozen fruit is to use the higher smoothie setting.

My husband makes himself a smoothie each morning since we got the Vitamix, and he likes to add whole raw beets, apple or other vegetables. The Vitamix chops them so finely, you absolutely can’t tell there’s whole vegetables (skin and all) in the drink. And fresh beets turn the smoothies a gorgeous raspberry red colour!

Making Almond Milk in the Vitamix

My next test was almond milk, to be used in the aforementioned smoothies as protein.  The almonds are soaked in water for several hours or overnight, then you just dump the whole mixture in the blender and hit start. In no time you have smooth, creamy almond milk.  There’s no way my old blender could do that.

Vitamix Makes Roasted Vegetable Dip

A third test was to make dip.  I used a recipe from the included Vitamix recipe book with roasted cauliflower, yogurt and spices. The Vitamix pulverized the vegetables into a smooth dip, and there was no way to tell it was vegetable based. The Vitamix could be the answer for you if your kids won’t eat vegetables, since you can hide them amazingly well!

Testing: from smoothies and dips to nut butters

A very sharp blade purees food easily
A very sharp blade purees food easily

Test number four involved peanut butter. I soaked peanuts for a few hours, and drained them before dumping the nuts into the Vitamix. A bit of oil, some honey and eventually some confectioners sugar, and I had a thick paste that tasted great, but was nowhere near the smooth and whipped consistency of store-bought peanut butter. it’s the kind of peanut butter I’ll make fresh for my dog (who cares less about consistency), or that I’ll use in recipes or smoothies.  I may also spend some more time looking for a different recipe to see if I get a different result. (Vitamix helpfully tweeted me some alternate nut butter recipes too!)

About the Vitamix S55

Smart settings, and two containers

The S55 “offers the ease and convenience of four pre-programmed settings in a personal blending size, taking the guesswork out of processing our most popular recipes. The Variable Speed Control lets you fine-tune every texture—from smooth purées to chunky salsas—and everything in between,” says Vitamix..The containers, blade base, lids, and seals are all (mercifully) top rack dishwasher-safe, The S-Series also has two container sizes—a 20-ounce/0.6-L that becomes an instant travel cup with flip-top lid and a 40-ounce/1.2-L for small batches of soups, sauces, frozen desserts, and more. That was extremely handy for a 2-adult household.

The Verdict

So far, I’m quite impressed with this machine. The question remains, will I use it regularly enough to justify its hefty price tag? So far, my husband has unexpectedly appropriated it for a morning veggie juice every day, so that alone may be worth it. I’ve had the Vitamix about a month now and use it about 3-4 times a week myself.

I do find it handy for making other foods, like the dips, though the food processor I own already has been working great for that.

One thing that’s worth noting is that this machine is LOUD.  So very very loud.  While a blender is bound to make noise, this one sounds like a small jet engine in my kitchen. For the price of this machine, some more insulation, baffling or a quieter motor would be a redesign I’d like to see in future models.

Check out the Vitamix S55 from Vitamix’s Canadian website.

Do you have thoughts about the Vitamix, or a test I should do? Let me know in comments.

Finished peanut butter.
Finished peanut butter.
Kale and fruit smoothie
Kale and fruit smoothie