As a member of Blogging for Books, Best Buy’s Tech Insider Network (and top-250 review contributor), and Thousandshores Power Users, I frequently receive items for free – or at a substantial discount – to review. Consequently, I recently realized I spend a lot more time writing reviews than I do writing my normal blog entries, so it made sense to put all my reviews in one place. So I started the new site in March 2017. Of course, I also review items I purchase at retail.
I know when I’m shopping for a new item, I pay close attention to meaningful reviews; so I try to be diligent about making sure my reviews are actually helpful.
As of now, most of my prior reviews have been posted on the site. In fact, you’ll see some that were previously published here. Others were first published on Best Buy, and some others on Amazon. A few others were at other sites. My general plan going forward is to upload at least one review per day, so check back often for new content.
Anyway, I hope you find it useful. At the very least, it’s been a fun project for me.
You can also follow the “review version of me” on Twitter as @LLHReviews:
It’s hard to think of myself as 50 years old. Fifty always seemed like a big number. An old person number. Yet, here I am. Fifty. Thanks to my many friends and family who have made me feel special by taking the time to wish me a happy birthday!
Fifty doesn’t seem quite as old to me now, but it can wear on you a bit. I understand why some people succumb to a midlife crisis as they seek validation and meaning. They begin to wonder what their legacy will be and whether people will remember them. They begin to measure their lives by the what-ifs. But I can also see the greater joy of staying true and holding the course to leave a true legacy.
I have been incredibly blessed during my 50 years. I was born into a family with great parents who loved and treasured my brother and me. In all of parenting, I don’t think there is any more powerful force than making sure your kids know they are loved unconditionally. And I was blessed to have been given that love as a child. Mom and Dad could have taught all the parenting “experts” a thing or two, I think.
Of course, unconditional love has a source, and that source is God. Without faith, love rings hollow. But love that springs from faith allowed me to trust that my eternal father also loved me completely. As our pastor likes to say, there is nothing I have done that will make God love me less, and nothing I can do that will make Him love me more. God simply loves us completely. If you don’t know that love yourself, you’re missing out on the best thing in life.
Mom and Dad also always believed Keith and I would be successful. Failure was never something to fear. The belief that the wind was always at our backs was nurtured at a young age. Confidence in their gifts and abilities is probably the second greatest gift a parent can give their children. Sure, I may have been an insecure introvert as a child; but I was still confident in my gifts and abilities. It was an odd mix that served me better as an introspective adult, but their confidence in us allowed us to maintain confidence in ourselves.
Then, as I became a young man, I was blessed to meet the most amazing woman I have known. Maggie eventually suffered a severe lapse in her otherwise excellent judgment and became my wife. I still have to convince myself I’m not dreaming from time to time. I’ll wake up and see her next to me, and I’m just hit with a wave of wonder. She is everything I wish I was more of, and I cannot get enough time with her.
Of course, we struggled as a young couple. We were bound to each other through our commitment through Christ and to marriage, but it’s always difficult when two lives blend into one. Fortunately, there was sufficient grace to go around, and we had a lot of fun growing from two independent people into two people joyfully committed to each other. I don’t want to imagine life with her.
In God’s timing, we were then blessed with Ally and Eric. What great kids! I tried – but too often failed – to help them be confident they were always loved and treasured unconditionally. I have so many wonderful memories of silly times together; it’s hard to understand how I could be so blessed. Recently, our parenting has shifted as the kids have become young adults. My role is no longer to be “Daddy the Guardian.” I hope to be a mentor and guide they can trust to always have their best interests at heart.
In terms of my career, I knew from a young age that my call was to be either a pastor or a lawyer. If you’ve ever heard me deliver a sermon, you know going into law was the right call. But I love using my gifts and talents daily to help people who are hurting. And I treasure the relationships developed through this daily “ministry.”
So what does the next 50 hold? I have no idea, but I trust the One who does.
In the meantime, since I believe wisdom is one of my primary gifts, let me leave you with some random thoughts I have jotted down over the past year. If there is anything here you find helpful, I will be happy.
Trust and belief are closely related and deeply intertwined, but they are not the same. Trust weighs the odds. Belief doesn’t care about probability.
Your greatest strength will also become your greatest weakness. Interestingly, your greatest weakness can at times be your greatest strength.
Everyone struggles with the desire to place security ahead of holiness; this struggle seems to intensify with age.
The greatest and most difficult skill of communication is understanding how to reach others where they are.
Confession and repentance are not about obtaining God’s forgiveness. He’s already made that commitment. It’s about gaining a greater understanding of God’s sovereignty and injecting that knowledge directly into how you live your life.
There is a big difference between trying to convert someone so you will feel better about yourself versus reaching out in love as one flawed person to another because you have experienced the joy, mercy, and forgiveness of God and you care enough about someone else that you desperately want them to know that same grace.
Surely, if we understood the real tragedy around us, we would do something to help. But we deceive ourselves into living in fictional bubbles, where everything is safe and clean. Yet, people are sick, hungry, and dying. And many are going to Hell because they do not know Christ.
The gifts God gave the prophets were never for themselves.
The tyranny of the trivial. Forget the urgent. It’s the meaningless things that crowd out our life and challenge our joy.
Politicians and media rarely let accuracy interfere with (or get in the way of) agenda.
If there is one lesson to learn about politics, it is this: Politics almost always ends up being about control and power rather than right or wrong.
For the first time, you can buy a Google-branded phone with premium specs and special features. That means you don’t have to compromise to get the cleanest, most up-to-date version of Android with special features from Google running on the best hardware. This is a new direction for Google. Not only is the Pixel a premium phone, it was reportedly designed completely by Google to capture their best vision for what an Android phone should be. HTC “assembled” the phone, but there is no HTC branding anywhere to be found. The branding is all Google.
As a phone enthusiast, I have used every major mobile OS available, from Android to iOS to Windows. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, but in recent months, I’ve come to really appreciate the latest versions of Android.
My last phone was a Nexus 5X. I purchased the 5X for some of the same reasons I love the Pixel: pure android, the earliest updates, and a great feature set for the price. Pixel takes things a few steps further, though, with a several exclusives and a truly premium feel.
In the box: 32GB Very Black Pixel phone, wall charger (USB-C), Two USB cables (one with USB-C on both ends, one with USB-A on one end and USB-C on the other), USB-C adapter, 3-month pass to Google Music, brochure information, and key to open SIM tray.
Setup was a little frustrating. There is a cable to connect the Pixel to your old phone in order to transfer your info, but it didn’t work with the 5X. So I had to do an over-the-air restore from my prior backup and then enter my ID in each app. That was mildly annoying. I presume they focused on building a transfer system that would work with iPhones and such, but I would have thought going from a Nexus to a Pixel would be buttery smooth; it was not. It took more time than it should, but in the end, everything works. So consider this a minor complaint.
Pixel is an excellent phone, but it is not perfect. Many reviews have complained about the large chin on the phone. Maybe it is bigger than it needs to be, especially given that there is only one speaker on the face of the Pixel, but it doesn’t really matter. In person, it looks fine and offers an easy place to hold/balance the phone. Others have complained that it is not waterproof. I’ll give them that. It is basically splash resistant, so it definitely lags behind several rival phones in this regard, and I do wish it were more resistant to water and dust. Some people don’t like the look of the phone with the glass tile on the back. That’s a matter of taste; I actually like it and think it adds a distinctive touch to the phone. Some people complain about the lack of an SD card or a 64Gb option for memory. I’ll give them that; I wish Google would be a little more flexible in terms of memory, but at least they did include a nifty memory manager with unlimited cloud storage for full-sized pictures and video (very nice add-on). I am slightly disappointed the phone doesn’t include wireless charging. Some people complain about the price, but this phone justifies the price when compared to the competition. It is not a Nexus; it is a new thing entirely, and it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best phones in the industry.
But when it comes to negatives, that’s it; and those are all minor issues relative to the overall function of the phone. And everything else about the Pixel is amazing.
The phone feels great in the hand. It is clearly a premium phone in terms of look and feel. I have the “Very Black” version (which strikes me more as a very deep gray, fwiw), and it is very attractive.
With 4Gb RAM, the new Snapdragon 821 chip, and Nougat 7.1, the Pixel flies effortlessly through any task. I haven’t found anything that makes it stutter. It is the fastest phone I have ever used, bar none.
The 1080p Super AMOLED screen with Gorilla Glass 4 offers a fantastic screen image with rich colors and great viewing angles. The glass also feels good. I don’t usually see reviews mention the feel of the glass, but I have used some phones where the glass just doesn’t feel as nice. This one feels great. And it has night mode built in. This is a terrific screen, although the Pixel XL does have better resolution than the 5″ Pixel. It can wash out a little in direct sunlight, so be aware of that.
The camera is AWESOME! I’m picky about cameras (those 20+mp Nokias with Carl Zeiss lenses spoiled me). The 5X had a decent shooter, but was VERY slow. Pixel improves the camera and is extremely quick about launching, focusing, and taking the shot. It is, quite simply, one of the best phone cameras on the planet. The camera includes a bolstered HDR+ mode that helps improve low-light performance, which was already impressive with the Nexus 6P and 5X. Additionally, Google includes electronic image stabilization, which has performed impressively thus far when taking pictures or shooting video, even in 4k. Google points out the phone doesn’t have a camera bump. To remove the bump, Google made the phone very slightly thicker at the top, so it tapers to the bottom. This allows it to rest flat when on a desk or table. I don’t actually mind camera bumps, but it was a thoughtful design touch. You might not even notice the taper if no one points it out to you. I will say the lack of a camera hump makes the phone just look more coherent than some others.
I love the fingerprint reader on the Pixel. It is similar to the one from my 5X, but it has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Most notably, you can swipe down on the fingerprint reader to open the notifications panel. It’s no wonder some reviews have called the Google fingerprint reader the best in the business. It has worked every time for me.
So far, the 2770mAh battery gets me through the day a bit better than the similarly-sized battery in my 5X did. I’ll be interested to see how it performs after its been broken in longer. Frankly, I would have preferred a slightly larger battery, though – say maybe 3000mAh. Google says it reaches 90% charge in 15 minutes. I was at about 40% when I plugged it last night, and it zoomed to 100% in less than 10 minutes, so that was good. Plus, the battery appears to be safely of the non-exploding variety. 😉
In terms of software, Nougat 7.1 is an excellent incremental improvement with one serious wow factor that is currently exclusive to Pixel – the addition of Google Assistant. While Siri usually just annoys me, I am a big fan of Cortana. Google Assistant is already better than both, especially in terms of recognizing a series of questions in a conversational manner. You need to try it to believe it. It was a lot of fun to just play with at first. Google Assistant scores extremely high in terms of recognizing what you say. Sure, it still makes a few mistakes, but the potential is very enticing. It can also provide you a snapshot of your day in the morning, which can be very helpful.
Pixel launcher is also pretty nice. I’ve generally used a third-party launcher in Android, but I might end up staying with the Pixel launcher due to the neat features (swipe up for the app drawer, easy access to Google Assistant, etc). But there isn’t much customization with the launcher, and that factor may drive me back to something like Nova Launcher Pro.
Several additional little software tweaks are much appreciated. For instance, now it is easy to visually see how to initiate a 3-way call in the native dialer. It’s a little thing, but I’ve long griped about the dialer in Android. Also, you can use app shortcuts (Quick Actions), which is similar to Apple’s 3D Touch feature. Basically, a list of options will appear when you long press on an app icon. This can be very helpful.
It seems odd to include the fact the phone has a headphone jack as part of a review, but it is worth mentioning these days. The jack is located on the top of the Pixel. Some people seem bothered by the location, but I actually tend to prefer it there.
I should also note I am extremely pleased the 5″ Pixel has the exact same specs as the larger 5.5″ Pixel XL, other than screen size and resolution. A five-inch phone is right about the sweet spot for me, and my only regret with the 5X was the fact it was a lower tier phone than the larger 6P. I’m happy to see Google recognize that its “smaller” phone can be every bit the premium handset as its larger phone. The Pixel fits my hand well and is easy to operate with one hand.
Of course, the larger XL should be better for Google Daydream View (Google’s new virtual reality offering), given the higher resolution and larger screen; but I expect the Pixel will be fine, too. I have not had an opportunity to experiment with Daydream, but the Pixel phones are the only ones currently that support it.
It is worth noting the Pixel has 24/7 customer service built into the OS. That indicates to me that Google is serious about this being a long-term project.
At the end of the day, the Pixel is an excellent phone. It has performed every task flawlessly. Could it be improved? Sure, and I expect the next generation will have some welcome tweaks. But I’m very excited with this new direction by Google and think they’ve done a great job with the first gen Pixel. Very highly recommended.
Latest OS directly from Google
Unlimited cloud storage for full-size pictures and videos
Exclusive Pixel software features
Solid, premium feel and appearance
Responsive fingerprint reader
Easy one-hand operation
Lacks expandable memory
No wireless charging
Despite the mild negatives, the Pixel is a 5-star performer and deserves all the accolades it is getting in the press. I believe this is the best 5″ phone on the planet right now. If you want a top-tier Android phone, I highly recommend the Pixel.
I am sorry I have not made enough time to write lately. I just realized it has been five months since I last blogged. A lot has happened since then.
The car in the blog entry below is no more. The TL did its job and kept Ally safe, but it did not survive the impact. Ally is perfectly fine. After a much more exhaustive (and exhausting) search, Ally now has a 2003 Jetta. I think she likes it. Meanwhile, Eric also got his permit; look out world!
Maggie and I just got back from a trip to Fort Lauderdale with our Management Group at the firm. We had a great trip. It is an exciting time here at the firm, and it was really great to be able to include the spouses and significant others on this trip. Maggie really enjoyed being able to relax and read in warm Florida sun. While she was pretending to be a literate lizard, we had some very encouraging meetings on the future of the firm. I remain grateful to be part of such a good group of people who happen to also be excellent lawyers.
I’m also very excited to see my brother’s Total Baseball app launch. It’s a great app. If you are a fan of MLB and have an iPad, you should check it out.
On a more personal note, I am sad to report that I sold my motorcycle a month or so ago, but I hope the young Marine who purchased it really enjoys it. Oorah! I hope to get another bike in the not-so-distant future and have my eye on several right now.
Spiritually, Maggie and I are now hosting a weekly small group from our church. Speaking of church, one of the most amazing things I’ve seen recently was the response at Summit’s Church at the Ballpark last month. We had over 11,500 people in attendance and more than 550 people were baptized. I have to admit baptisms always make me cry. I am just overwhelmed by the joy of knowing a person has made a commitment with Christ that will carry them into eternity. There truly is nothing else nearly as important as the decision about salvation. Anyway, our Summit small group is on top of our monthly “Influencers” small group we already host, the bi-weekly book/Bible study group I have at work, and monthly Gospel & Work group at church. In case it’s not clear, I believe strongly in small groups!
We are in the stage of life now where we see the parents of friends passing. My heart bleeds for our dear friends who have lost parents over the past year. I also hurt for friends who have lost relationships with their parents over the years. Both losses are painful. Here’s to our parents; may they understand how truly loved and appreciated they are.
Anyway, I guess I should end here before I ramble even further. Be blessed.
Earlier this week, we took the plunge and purchased a car for our soon-to-be-16-year-old daughter. Before deciding to buy the car, we had to wrestle with several questions:
Should we get a car now?
What were the priorities for a car?
Who would pay for the car? Who would pay to maintain it?
What sort of price range would we consider? And what type of vehicle would we consider?
Would this be a “joint” car (used by both Ally and Eric, when he turns 16 next year) or would it be Ally’s car?
Obviously, we decided now was a good time to buy a car. There are many reasons for this. One, it will be a big relief on Maggie’s scheduled when Ally can drive herself (and maybe Eric) to school and other events on a regular basis. We wanted Al to have lots of practice time over the Summer before we’d agree to her driving by herself (or with Eric). We also knew she did not feel as confident driving the van or my truck, so we wanted to get something she felt more connected to (ie, a smaller car with more precise steering). And, we wanted to reward Ally for all her hard work. She is a wonderful, responsible, hard-working young lady. We decided getting a car this Summer was appropriate. We really expected to look for a month or more before we found anything we could agree to buy, but in the end, we found a great car at a terrific value just two days into our search, so we went ahead and purchased it.
In terns of paying for the car, there are three approaches: 1. Have the child pay for the car so they learn about financial responsibility. 2. Parent pays for the car and regular expenses to maintain a bit more control of the situation (esp safety factors) and allow the child to focus more on school than having to earn money. And 3. Parents pay for the car and child covers expenses. After some discussion, we fell mostly in #2. We did not want to detract from school, and we also wanted to ensure that any vehicle purchased was safe and reliable. We will cover basic expenses (such as insurance), but Ally will remain responsible for any additional costs. We also have control of the vehicle should she prove to struggle with, say, the speed limit or other such things (I am confident this will not be the case but use it just as an example). To be clear; this was simply our answer; I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer for this issue. The dynamics, resources, and needs of each family are different.
In terms of price range, we settled in pretty quickly on what seemed like an acceptable range to both Maggie and myself. We would not buy anything we had to finance; we’d pay out of pocket. We did not want a junker. It was important to us that the car be reliable. It was vital to us that the car be safe. We looked at a lot of older Volvos and some Hondas. In the end, we settled in on a car we have some prior experience with – the Acura TL. I owned two prior TLs, and they were great cars. Ally had loved my TL and hoped it would be hers one day. Alas, I sold it and bought my current truck last year in order to be free of any car payments. The TL we got her is a good bit older (1999) than mine were, and it is a different body style, but it is a good quality, reliable, safe vehicle. We happened to come across one in great shape being sold by the original owner at an extremely reasonable price. The owner and I developed a quick rapport, and he turned out to be a really nice guy.
We originally went into the discussion process thinking we would get a vehicle that would be a combined-use vehicle between Ally and Eric, but there were some issues. For one, Eric’s height (a little over 6’4″ now) makes getting into many cars a bit interesting. He had to fold his legs up around many steering wheels, for instance. With some cars, he just does not fit. As we went through the decision process though (this process started well before the actual search process), it seemed more appropriate to get them separate vehicles. We decided to get one for Ally now and then look one for Eric next year.
In the end, we’re all satisfied with the process. Ally has a car she really loves. She has a car we feel good about in terms of safety and reliability; there is a good chance this car will make it all the way through high school and college with her. And the price we paid was substantially below book value.
I was able to get a 128 GB Surface Pro in mid February. I got the Type Cover and Wedge Mouse with it. My main concerns were battery life, size of screen, and the fixed-angle kickstand. So far, I love it. It has been a great replacement for old Dell XPS laptop and my Android tablet. I’ll talk about my three concerns prior to buying it and then add a few more observations.
Battery: My lowest day of real-world use was a shade (like 5 minutes) below 6 hours. It was down to 6% battery life left at that point after relatively heavy use. Most days, I’m getting 7 hours out of it. While more time would be better, I’m relatively pleased. Granted, I’m not a heavy gamer. I’m mostly using it for writing, editing, PowerPoints, reading, and surfing with some light video watching thrown in from time to time. The bigger battery issue, IMO, is the fact the charger doesn’t have a keeper strap or anything like that (so you can’t pack it up neatly) and the charger is sometimes a pain to connect to the charging port (it doesn’t just happily snap in, like the MBA does). But it’s certainly livable.
Screen size: The screen is amazing. I was concerned about the size, but the easy scaling by touch makes it wonderfully easy to use. My only gripe here is the snap feature (or whatever MS calls it when you can run to two programs side-by-side on the start screen). I love the feature and used it when I gave a presentation last week (had my personal notes up on one side and the presentation paper up on the other so I could keep my speech synchronized with the paper). But I wish you were not limited to a fixed ratio. I’d really like a 50/50 or 60/40 split every now and then. I hope MS adds this via software update at some point.
Kickstand: No worries here. I can easily use this as a laptop on my lap while sitting on the couch. It is far more versatile in that regard than conventional tablets. It is stable enough to use the touchscreen interface with no worries at all. One other benefit I noticed is that since the keyboard is the only part on your lap, you don’t get a bunch of heat on your lap when using it in your lap, either.
Regarding other things, the speed and response is impressive. No lag on anything. Surfing is much faster and smoother on the Surface than on the current gen iPad. At this point, the best surfing experience by far is with MS Explorer 10. I’m a huge Chrome fan, but it is not optimized the same way Explorer is yet, and that optimization makes a huge difference. To my great surprise, I really like Explorer 10.
The pen works pretty well. It is nice to have native ability to have clients sign a Word doc on the Surface. It works well for free-hand notes (particularly when used with OneNote), but it is not perfect. I do wish it had a slot for the pen, but I just put in my pen pouch in my briefcase or backpack; that works perfectly fine.
The Wedge Mouse was a nice addition; I’m sure any decent bluetooth mouse would work great with it. On the desktop mode, the mouse is handy to have sometimes, but you can get by without it by using the trackpad or the pen.
The touch interface is very smooth. Apps are better than expected, but there are still plenty of holes in the lineup. Installing “legacy apps” (aka, real programs) was perfectly smooth.
Weight isn’t as bad as I initially thought. When I first opened it, I immediately thought it was too heavy. But that feeling went away after about 5 minutes of use. The kickstand helps mitigate the weight in that you can often prop it up with the kickstand rather than support all the weight all the time. I tend to prefer to read in landscape mode, anyway, but you also get used to portrait mode pretty quickly (although it does look a little over-tall at first blush).
Switching from start screen to desktop is not quite the jarring experience it has been portrayed as in some reviews. However, I do miss pinch to zoom and that sort of scalable touch function when running desktop programs. You can use touch navigation and such on desktop programs, but it’d be perfect if you could use a full touch interface all the time.
The Type Cover is very good. It is not as good as a top-end keyboard, but it is imminently usable and responds well to normal pressure. I was too cautious with it at first and made a few more mistakes as a result. But once I warmed up (took maybe 20 minutes), I was able to fly along with no issues. The trackpad is not so great, but it is functional and the touchscreen and pen more than make up for any deficiencies with the trackpad. I also haven’t had any issues with the Wedge Mouse. I only break it out for heavy editing work, though.
As a productivity tool, I love that it cold boots in 8 seconds (about 2-3 seconds from standby) and shuts down in about 2-3 seconds. I can just pick it up, turn it on, and dive in. Thanks also to MS for avoiding bloatware. The Surface Pro handles everything I’ve thrown at it smoothly. The touchscreen is addictive. My kids have MBAs that I have worked with from time to time (and liked more than my Dell XPS), and the Surface feels more user-friendly than the MBA. Touch is a big part of that; you can just pinch to zoom most things, and it it makes a difference on smaller screens like those of the Surface and MBA. I would have chosen the MBA over my old XPS, but I’d take the Surface over a MBA every day of the week now.
At this point, I’d give the Surface Pro about an 8.9 out of 10 and can strongly recommend it for most folks. It’d easily push a good bit higher if it were just little thinner and lighter, had maybe 25% more battery life, and if you could use the full touch interface for desktop programs.