Review: Pebble Smartwatch


As I do on occasion, today’s post is a review about a recently acquired item. But first, let me tell you of the story behind it.

My lovely wife Ann thought it would be nice to buy me a nifty gadget – she knows I love technology – for Christmas in the form of a Metawatch Strata. While I did like it, there were a few things that I couldn’t really get used to, namely the difficult-to-read silver (?) display and its failure to control music on my phone. This would have been a great feature when I was out running. But no matter how I tried, it just wouldn’t read the music on my phone which was pretty disappointing.

After two days, I reluctantly returned it to Best Buy for an exchange. I say “reluctantly” because I am the guy who never, ever returns gifts no matter what. I just don’t do that. But in this case, with a smartwatch that wasn’t all that smart, I didn’t have much choice.

I had been researching the Pebble Smartwatch before I went to the store and ended up getting it for the same price as the Metawatch Strata (on sale for $79.99). Ann still seemed disappointed in my choice but she’s since learned that it was the right one, and here’s where the review begins. Note that I am currently using an HTC one M7, probably the best phone I’ve had, to connect to the Pebble.

unnamedWhat Is Pebble?
For starters, I should go over what exactly Pebble is. It’s a simple, functional smartwatch with a black-and-white backlit LCD display that does only what it needs to do. It’s not fancy like Samsung’s Gear smartwatches and doesn’t promise to do all the ridiculous things that Apple is saying its Apple Watch will eventually do when it’s finally released – whenever that will be. Pebble is indeed the Bauhaus of smartwatches in a market currently ruled by Warhols, and that’s a good thing.

Pebble is designed to be an extension of your smartphone by displaying notifications for incoming phone calls, emails, and texts. (Additionally, you can set the Pebble to vibrate for any and all alerts.) It also lets you control smartphone apps and functions such as music and fitness apps such as Endomondo, my preferred fitness app. You can also load apps like Yelp and onto the watch although some of them may need the full-size accompanying app (like Endomondo) on your phone in order for them to run.

Design
The Pebble is what it is: simple. You won’t be overwhelmed by its looks but if you feel that making a fashion statement is part of owning a smartwatch, then you definitely have other more expensive choices out there. It’s available in white, black, or red and if your feeling really GQ, you can go for the Pebble Steel, twice the cost of the standard model and with a few more features. As for me, I opted for black as I know it will be getting banged up and dirty between running, cycling, and the daily rigors of work.

(Speaking of getting banged up, I bought a Zagg InvisibleShield protector to cover the screen. The only image on this post without it is the one showing how to control music.)

There are a total of four buttons on the Pebble: the three right-side buttons are for navigation and the left-side button is for the backlight, although there are settings in the app to activate the light when you shake your wrist. Your choice.

Connectivity
Pebble connects to your phone via Bluetooth, which means that you should expect a shorter battery life from your phone as it is talking to the Pebble constantly. Through the use of the Pebble app, you can designate which smartphone apps you would like to receive notifications from, in my case I only have it set up for text alerts, emails, calls, and a few select apps. That’s about all I really need. When you get a notification, it will show up on the Pebble’s screen. Note that in order to receive email notifications, you must be connected to your data network. I only state this because I always have my data off. Text messages, however, will always show up but MMS messages will not send an alert to Pebble as it cannot display images.

One of the downsides I immediately noticed was that when I got a text, I still had to use my phone in order to reply. This was remedied when I discovered the Awear app which lets you reply with, not compose, short messages. You can select from a predetermined list of replies (Positive, Negative, etc.) or make your own list of personal Shortcut messages within the app to reply with (e.g. “Stupid cats!”) Despite a few bugs, Awear is exactly what I needed.

Speaking of Bluetooth, Pebble had a few problems while I was running with Bluetooth earbuds, namely freezing, resets, and songs playback being really choppy. I’ve since learned to stick with wired earbuds which isn’t a big deal since they sound better and playback is not hindered. I’ve never run more than one thing on Bluetooth before so I’m not sure if it was my phone or Pebble acting funny and not being able to handle everything.

Battery Life
The Pebble comes with one of the strangest proprietary USB charging cables I’ve ever seen: magnetized. The charger has a few small prongs extruding from it along with some small magnets. Line them up and the watch charges, but the trick is getting the charger to stick. The magnets don’t stay in place very well and the watch has to sit just right or the charger will not connect – and the watch won’t charge. The good thing is that a single charge will last you a few days if you are just using it for basic functions. Here’s a shot of the Pebble with the weird charger attached.

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However, if you plan to run other apps on top of that, then expect considerably less life from the battery. After a nearly 9-mile run the other day, it was down to 40% but being it charges quickly, it wasn’t an issue once I was home. That said, you can’t just plug any USB cable into it to charge. You’ll need to buy another proprietary one from Pebble.

Functions
I’m trying to figure out the last time I was out for a run and had this much fun. As stated earlier, Pebble can control a variety of apps including Endomondo. Before I had Pebble, it was a real pain to stop said app on my phone while standing at a crosswalk or taking a quick hydration break. Now it’s as easy as pressing a button.

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These are my stats after my run a few days ago. As you can see, the middle-right button is the start/pause button and that’s a freaking godsend when compared to reaching for my armband, waking up my phone, then hoping that it can register my tap over the armband’s thick, plastic window. With Pebble, hit that middle button and the app stops. Amazing. (While Endomondo does feature an automatic start/stop function based on your movement, I prefer doing it manually.) The three stats you see here can be changed within the Endomondo app, and Pebble requires installing their Endmondo app in order for this to work.

Then there’s the music.

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Pebble has a built-in Music app that lets you control whichever music app you choose via the Pebble app on your phone. Again, this beats the hassle of reaching for my phone all the time while running. All it takes is a few presses of a button and the music is paused. Once I’m ready to go, I start it up again. It works flawlessly.

Along with those two functions, you can install apps to give you updates on weather, sports, stocks, etc. The downside here is that Pebble limits you to a combined eight apps and watchfaces so you’d better choose wisely.

Watchfaces
Pebble comes with a few watchfaces preinstalled and you can download more via the Pebble app. More are designed by other users and some are really amazing (Mario Bros. and retro Casio faces) while others are equally crappy. Once you download them, you use the app to send them to the watch. The problem with almost all of these watchfaces is that they are more aesthetically pleasing and less functional, meaning they don’t give you stats on missed calls, texts, battery and phone life, etc. And while the Awear app has its own watchface that displays all of those things, it cannot be customized.

Enter Pebble Canvas, a third-party smartphone app that allows users to create their own custom watchfaces. Not only that, you can also customize watchfaces created by others once you download them to the app. The possibilities are practically endless. Here are the watchfaces I’ve created so far, with Basic being the most popular of the three with over 20 downloads.

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Since creating Basic, I’ve added the Bluetooth icon, unread Gmail and Weather features to it (see image under Battery Life above). While watchfaces created in Pebble Canvas won’t be nearly as clean or fancy as those available in the Pebble app’s store, they serve a better purpose and give the freedom of complete customization.

Summary
I’ve had my Pebble a few weeks and I admit that I really enjoy it. The Pebble watch is uncomplicated. Its e-reader display won’t win over a lot of people and neither will its limited functionality. However, there were plenty of people who believed that Pebble’s limited functionality was worth the $10.3 million it raised via Kickstarter. While I didn’t contribute, I’m a believer in this little smartwatch and all it has to offer despite the few hiccups I’ve encountered along the way. It’s a great running mate, a functional smartphone notification system, a fine music controller and oh yeah, it tells the time as well. I couldn’t expect it to do more and while not for everybody, I’ve been very happy with it so far.

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Adventures in Smartphones


Okay, so it’s been way too long between posts and I sort of have an idea about today’s topic.

As you may recall, I dropped my Samsung Galaxy S4 Active the day before I was to participate in the Long Beach Marathon Bike Tour and 5k. In case you don’t remember what it looked like after the fall, here’s a refresher.

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Since the day I dropped it, I had been tolerating the ugly display and felt every little crack as I slid my finger across the screen and because of that, I had to buy a cheap screen protector in order to save the tip on my index finger from getting any glass stuck inside of it. And I worked with it as long as I could.

I think it was about a week after The Dropping when I decided that I couldn’t take it anymore and gave AT&T a call to get an idea on what I could do until I’m eligible for an upgrade. The simplest solution, as they told me, was to buy a cheap AT&T GoPhone and slide the SIM card in it and everything would be back to normal.

Thinking it was a good idea, I did just that by purchasing the ZTE Compel at Radio Shack since the nearest AT&T store didn’t have them in stock. In fact, they had very little in stock and shouldn’t even be in business. More on that later.

Thinking I had the problem temporarily solved, I took it home, put my SIM card in the phone, connected to WiFI, and started getting my favorite apps. By the time I hit App #7, the internal memory was already full. I didn’t even think to start moving apps to the memory card; I immediately figured that this phone was lacking and decided to take it back after two solid hours of ownership. It just wasn’t going to work for me.

So now I’m back to using Ol’ Crackly. I started to browse the Best Buy site for some reason, knowing I didn’t have the money to fork over for a new phone but after searching, I did find a Samsung Galaxy that was in my price range—sort of. I still didn’t have enough money to buy the thing. I then made the decision to apply for a Best Buy credit card and, within seconds (which really is some kind of record for me), I was approved and could start shopping immediately. Hey, man. Desperate times, desperate measures.

10697408_10152586326394118_4861105702589338811_oAnd when I buy a phone, I take a lot into consideration (except maybe for that ZTE piece of garbage, which was bought out of sheer desperation). Things like replaceable battery, expandable memory, internal memory, and camera megapixels are all important when I’m comparing. I had narrowed the phones down to a couple of Moto G models (16GB internal memory and no SD card expansion) and the Samsung Galaxy S II (16GB internal memory with SD card expansion) even though the Motorola phones had no removable battery. I don’t know how you iPhone people do it. In the end, I took a chance with the Galaxy S II knowing that it was indeed a few years behind in terms of style, OS, everything. Then the waiting game began as I checked the UPS Tracking Number daily to see when the phone would arrive.

I was very happy when the phone arrived. It was so shiny and…white. But the problem was that, being it was well over three years behind the times, it had a standard SIM card and not the mirco SIM cards that today’s smartphones use. This meant I had to make a trip to my local AT&T store to get a larger SIM card.

They didn’t have any of those, either. Remember when I said this place shouldn’t even be in business? Well, there you go. I had to end up scooting down the local Corporate store where I took a number and waited but not very long. I told them what I needed, they scanned my info to it, I was done and on my way home.

Now it was time. I had a somewhat new phone and my SIM card which I inserted and started the setup process. It all went well and I was ready to once again start installing apps.

Here’s the funny thing about the Samsung Galaxy S II: it has 16GB partitioned memory with a paltry 2GB dedicated to the Android OS and apps. Two. Freaking. Gigabytes. Had I known this from the get-go there would have been no way I would have bought it as I’m a heavy app user.

Anyway, I started installing apps and was relatively satisfied having my most frequently used apps on it. Then came time to give it a test run—and it failed.

The dual-core processor couldn’t handle things very well and it froze up on me frequently. The 11GB of remaining memory are for storage and pictures and I soon realized why that is: the phone was so bad that it couldn’t save images to the SD card. I would take a few pictures and then review them, losing the last couple I had taken. Once I switched to saving them internally, the problem went away but that didn’t solve the freezing-up issue. This was enough for me to decide that it had to go back to Best Buy, where I was asked why I was returning it.

“It’s a horrible phone,” I said. “It really is. It just didn’t work for me.”

That’s two phones within a week and at this point, I was off the grid. Remember, that phone had a standard SIM card and my Galaxy S4 had the micro SIM card, meaning it was useless until I could get my info put back onto a micro SIM card. Ugh.

So I walked around Best Buy looking at unlocked phones and man, I didn’t want to spend a lot which was the main reason I bought the Galaxy S II. The thing was just over $200 which I thought wasn’t too bad for what it was on paper, but I soon learned the truth. But after looking over several models and asking the associates how much internal memory they had (mostly 8 or 16GB), I was starting to feel as if I would be back to using Ol’ Crackly once again.

That was until I saw the HTC one M7.

It was blue, my favorite color. It had 32GB of internal memory. It had a quad-core processor.

And although it has a non-replaceable battery and no memory expansion, in the end (and $299 later) it went home with me.

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Well, I didn’t go straight home just yet. I had to make yet another trip to the AT&T Corporate store to get my info put back on a micro SD card which they happily did in no time flat. And once I got home, I finally cranked this baby up and let it fly.

I was impressed. I’m still impressed. This phone is everything that my previous AT&T phones were not: quick, responsive, a flat-out joy to use. And I hesitate to say that despite it not being waterproof like Ol’ Crackly, I enjoy using the M7 much more.

Then it came time to start chipping away at the 32GB on internal storage, or about 24GB remaining after bloatware and OS are factored in.

Apps installed and ran perfectly. There is absolutely no lag when running anything on this phone. I then transferred the music I had on the micro SD card over to it and as of now, with all of my most frequently used apps installed and enough music to keep me happy, I still have 12.4GB remaining. Ol’ Crackly was just under 8GB remaining but a lot of the stuff was running off the micro SD card which could explain the lag I sometimes experienced. And if the music on the phone isn’t enough, I have over 10,000 songs stored online with Google Music.

Another plus is that I upgraded to Android KitKat, and that this model is on the list of phones that will be getting Android Lollipop next year. I won’t be obsolete for a long time!

Now if there’s one thing I could say I don’t like about this phone, it’s the HTC Sense launcher. While it looks beautiful, it seems to lack a lot of things that the stock Touchwiz launcher does. But I didn’t mess with it for very long as I installed Nova Launcher, a completely customizable Android launcher that looks and functions better than Touchwiz.

Also, the camera is a measly 4MP but with everything else the HTC one M7 brings to the table (quad-core processor, 2GB RAM, Beats audio, FM radio, awesome design, slow-motion HD video, etc.) I’m willing to compromise. In the right hands, even a 4MP camera can look pretty good. Here’s a full-size sample of a picture taken with the M7.

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Definitely not as sharp as the Galaxy S4 Active but still acceptable for me, and I now understand how iPhone users deal with non-expandable memory.

I also bought a case for it, a rather rugged one that will have to do until I can find an Otterbox case. I’m willing to spend…uh, charge the extra money to my credit card for an Otterbox case so that this phone doesn’t suffer the same fate as the Galaxy Active. I’m just not ready to deal with that again.

And oh, it’s good to sit and blog again. I just wish my laptop was still working so that I can retire to privacy of my Creative Corner where I enjoy writing so much more.

Eating My Words


When we signed our contract with Big Cell Phone Company (AT&T), something I thought I’d never do again, I remember the salesperson asking if we wanted to buy insurance for our phones.

My reply was simple: “Nah, I’ve had good luck with phones and never had to replace one. No thanks.”

Besides, my Samsung Galaxy S4 Active was designed to be impervious to elements such as water and dust and I didn’t figure that I’d be exposing it to much of those anyway, so what were the chances of having the phone damaged in any other way? Right? Well, today I found out.

On this, the eve of a busy weekend of Kids Fun Runs and my fifth bike tour and second duathlon, I am eating my words in regards to not opting for insurance. This morning I was trying to calibrate the speed on my bike’s computer by comparing it to a speedometer app on my phone. All was going well until, somehow or another, the phone slipped out of my hand and onto the asphalt.

There was this awful *KA-CHUNK* sound as it made contact.

At that point I didn’t care about the calibration. I hit the brakes and turned around to find the phone lying face-down in the street and my only thought was, “Oh shit. I hope the screen isn’t broken.”

I picked it up, flipped it over, and found this staring back at me.

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One tumble from around 3 feet at a speed of 5 MPH has turned the screen into what looks like a window of an abandoned restaurant somewhere in the middle of the Mojave Desert that had been shot at repeatedly by a CO2 pistol. I mean, look at that. It’s pretty effed up.

I picked it up and as any normal 40-something male would do when their expensive gadget malfunctioned or was severely damaged, I bawled like a baby.

(Okay, maybe not that bad. But I was pretty upset and honestly, still am. I’m using this blog post as an outlet.)

And naturally, because I have no insurance on the thing*, I’m willing to bet that there isn’t much that AT&T would be willing to do to make things right so I’m not even going to bother to call them on it. It fell, it broke. It was an accident and that’s all there was to it.

With that being the case I decided to look into having the screen repaired locally, and the quote from the first and only company I contacted was for $180 plus tax. Here’s my issue with that.

I’m on the Next Plan with AT&T, a plan that includes a $20 extra monthly charge that is applied toward your future upgrade. At this point in our contract, I would have to pay $250 (the remaining balance over our contract) in order to upgrade to a new phone so even if I had the money to do so (which I don’t), there’s no way I’d spend $180 to get the thing fixed when for a mere $70 more I can just get a brand new phone.

In the meantime, I’m trying to adopt to my new spider-webby screen which meant running down to my favorite Japanese store for a generic screen cover so that I wouldn’t get any glass shards in my fingertips as I use the thing. I’m sure the screen will continue to crack as days go by so the cover will also keep things in place.

As for the phone’s look, I can pretend the cracks are part of a really cool, live 3D wallpaper – until it’s time to read a text. The top of the screen is pretty much useless with those huge cracks, and that means posting things to social media is going to be a real pain. Facebook is difficult, Instagram is impossible, and I’m sure I’ll find out as time goes by which other apps have been killed as the result of this little incident.

And if there is anything good about this, it’s that the front-facing camera lens narrowly escaped having the crack go over it. Because, you know…selfies.

I take a lot of pictures with my phone at all of my events and I had planned on doing it again this weekend. I’m positive I’ll still do that, but when I ask someone to take one for me, I’m going to look like…you know, one of those guys with the cracked phone screen that makes you say, “How do you use that? Man, why don’t you just get a new phone?”

If only it were that simple.

So this year, my laptop took a dump and I busted my phone. Not fun.

But on the plus side, I did buy a PowerBall ticket for this Saturday…

 

*No insurance that I’m aware of. Maybe I should call.

Dead., Part Deux


(Note: I started this post last night, February 25, 2014. You will see references to “today” throughout the post and at a certain point, I will explain why. Trust me, you will enjoy it.)

In a post on February 3, I mentioned that my iPod touch had suddenly and unexpectedly died and there was nothing I could do to revive it outside of visiting an Apple Store and speaking to a…Genius.

Fortunately for me, that won’t be happening. I have something to show you.

Photo Feb 25, 10 05 18 PM

See the date? That’s today. Okay, maybe that’s not enough proof. Here’s a shot with the year.

Photo Feb 25, 10 14 31 PM

As you can see, it does indeed show February 25, 2014 or today’s date.

Ladies and gentlemen, my iPod has risen from the dead like a messiah. It’s back to 100% functionality and I’ve been slowly filling it up with the music it once held, a task I really, really despise since I have so many songs in my library.

So what did I do to get this thing working again?

Dunno. I suppose if I knew exactly what I did, I would gladly tell you so that you could perform this same operation on your iPod/iPhone should it ever be terminally stuck on the “Connect to iTunes” screen no matter what you do to it:

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I tried so many different ways of resetting it that I ran out of ideas. I mean , honestly, how many can you think of with only a volume rocker, power button, and Home button? Which ones do you hold down and for how long? It’s things like this that drive me nuts about Apple and their not-so-forthcoming instructions on resetting your iPod. Makes me mad.

At any rate, I’m not entirely sure of which buttons I pressed in order to get it working but if I had to guess, I’d say it was the Power button and the Volume Down bottom.

I had read somewhere that doing so and holding them down simultaneously for around 40 second, gdio


(Flash-forward to February 26, 2014 – the REAL today)

Alright folks, here’s the story.

I worked my first eight-hour shift last night at my new job. It was from 12pm – 9pm. It was fun but tiring and the first time I worked such a shift, or eight hours in general, in a long time. I walked to and from work, a brisk 10-minutes from home, and being the job requires me to be on my feet all the time, I was pretty tired by the time I got home.

Then I thought it would be a good idea to try and write a blog post and you can see by the sentence that ends in “gdio” I didn’t quite finish. In fact, here’s a screencap of what happened while I was writing the draft:

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I fell asleep a few times and managed to wake up in time to grab this, a screencap in which my hand apparently came to rest on the V key.

So there’s my explanation. Back to the post.


Anyway, yes. Holding down the Volume Down key and Power button apparently did the trick because after holding it down for so long then connecting it to the PC, iTunes happily told me that my iPod was now in Recovery Mode and had to be reset. Victory, finally! Being it was useless at this point I figured I might as well blast the drive clean and start over.

So it was done. The iPod was restored back to like-new condition (internally, at least) and complete with the “most advanced iOS ever,” aka iOS 5.1.1!

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Hey, it’s old. It can’t be upgraded past this version.

I’ve since started to slowly fill it back up with music which as I stated before, is a pain with my collection. Obviously, I also lost all of my apps and am slowly going through my account to see which ones I had on there when it decided to implode. I’m looking at it this way: if I can’t remember them then chances are I don’t need to download them. I’m using more apps on my Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 and my phone anyhow so it looks like my newly revived iPod will now be dedicated 100% to music.

That’s fine with me, because looking at my downloaded app history, I have no idea why I had a Poo Tracker app on it anyhow.

The New Computer


I’m writing a second post tonight because I’m in the mood. It’s a fantastically cool evening and I’ve got the patio doors open as well as the one behind me, letting a nice breeze come rolling through.

So anyway, you might recall a post I wrote over a year ago about my being involved in a class action lawsuit that might yield me more than just a free month of service to [insert defendant here] or a measly five bucks. No, this class action lawsuit appeared to be much more fruitful which kind of made me a bit skeptical about the whole thing.

But as you will read in this post, it was anything but a scam.

About a few weeks ago, I received a letter from Lawsuit HQ informing me that a settlement had been reached and that I still had the option to take the $62.50 cash or redeem the voucher code on the letter at a certain website to get a brand-spanking-factory-refurbished item of my choice (up to $365 retail value): laptop, desktop, tablet, or monitor.

And being our computer had trouble mixing the ingredients and adding sugar while waiting for Candy Crush Saga to load, we opted for the computer.

Then the fun began.

The selection on that website is horrible to say the least. I literally spent hours at a time at the computer F5ing as often as possible in the hopes they’d get something better. Then one day, after refreshing umpteen times, one showed up that was most excellent. I added it to my cart and started the checkout process.

The item disappeared as I was at the last checkout step and I got a warning that the item was no longer available. Wait, how does that happen? Did someone really snag that thing out of my virtual cart and put it into theirs?

Grrr. It was gone and the mediocre selection of AMD-powered PCs returned but I didn’t want any of those. I wanted an Intel chip, more memory, and a bigger hard drive. The rest would be details.

So I spent another day – it’s a good thing I’m not working – hitting F5 and hoping for the best and once again, a decent model showed up. This time I ran with it like O.J. Simpson through an airport terminal getting to his Hertz Rent-A-Car.*

And it was mine – free of charge, no less.

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Then a couple of days ago, it arrived and I was so happy.

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That’s the new beast in all its refurbished glory. Can’t you just hear the angels and harps? But along with the euphoria I felt with opening the UPS-delivered box I also came to the realization all new computer owners face: setup and transferring.

But being I’m constantly backing up my stuff** to a 2TB external drive as well as Dropbox and MegaCloud, transferring this time around wasn’t that much of a task. Once I installed Dropbox and MegaCloud, all of the files uploaded to those respective clouds downloaded to the new computer. Boom. Done. Like nothing happened.

Then a few essential things had to be installed: Chrome, Photoshop, Office, iTunes, etc. Of course, along with installing came the removing of bloatware (surprisingly, not a lot).

I wasn’t too concerned about pictures yet since they are on the external drive as well as the old PC, but music was another issue. Today I was finally daring enough to transfer the folder on the external drive called Music and along with that came duplicate and sometimes triplicate mp3 files. There was a total of 70GB worth of music including 20GB of duplicate files which I deleted today, and I know there’s more.

Along with this “new” computer being fast (it would never give you an indication it was refurbished), it came equipped with Windows 8 which I was not fond of at first but am growing to really enjoy. On the surface (see what I did there?) you can tell that it’s strictly an OS designed to be touched but Microsoft did a good job in transitioning Windows 8 into a PC format OS that works almost flawlessly. It takes some time getting used to how it works but it functions amazingly well.

As for specs, here’s what’s under the hood.

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As you can see it’s got a whopping 1TB hard drive so between that and the 2TB external drive, I’ve got more storage than I know what to do with. I kind of like that feeling.

For now, I’m pretty much done with the basic setting up of the computer. I’ve got enough of my most frequently used programs on there to do whatever I need to do and then some. I know there will be more stuff down the road but for the moment, I’m very satisfied with its performance.

And all of this for free because of a faulty floppy disk drive that the computer I owned well over 10 years ago didn’t even have.

Not too shabby. I’d say I made out alright with this deal.

*For you younger folks
**It’s a terrible habit, I know