Saturday, July 13, 2013

Review of UP by Jawbone - Great Design, Dubious Efficacy

A few people have been asking me about this thing I've been wearing around my wrist for the past month. The Jawbone UP is "is a wristband and app that tracks how you sleep, move and eat—then helps you use that information to feel your best."

Here are my thoughts on how well it works.


My main interest was in understanding my sleep better. The UP claims to measure your sleep cycle, in terms of light sleep, deep sleep and waking. By knowing how well you sleep each night, you could figure out how daily activities such as diet and exercise contribute to your sleep. You can see the screenshot below.
It was quite addictive at first, and every morning I would plug the UP into my phone's headphone jack to download the previous night's sleep data. I would find out that I had woken up even though I didn't remember, and how much deep sleep I got. When my toddler asked me to help him put his diaper on in the middle of the night, the UP registered the disruption.

But after a while, I realised a problem. While I cannot verify light sleep or deep sleep, I certainly remembered some of the times I woke up. In the screenshot above, it was a particularly restless night and I woke up 3 times between 1 and 5 am, but the UP did not register any of it. If it can't tell when I woke up (and checked the time on my watch, which is situated right next to the band), how can I trust it to tell light from deep sleep?


The UP is supposed to be a very advanced pedometer, and for an urban lifestyle it helps you set a goal (e.g. 10,000 steps) to ensure you have sufficient activity. It also comes with a workout mode, and the first time I tried it on a 2.4km run, it measured 2.3km! I was suitably impressed, especially since this was the run I was using to calibrate the distance. Subsequently, it measured another 6km run as 11km... not so impressed. (This could be because I switched from a mid-foot running style to a fore-foot running style, changing the length of my stride and arm swing, but that's not an excuse!)


Tracking calorie intake is not easy, and the UP doesn't particularly stand out in this. Apps try to tackle the biggest problem, which is that a lot of the food you eat doesn't come labelled with nutritional values. They do this by loading preset items for you to select from. However, the two challenges that remain are firstly that portion sizes are not always accurate, and even for a given type of food the calorie count can vary greatly. Just take a look at the array of choices MyFitnessPal provides for something simple like a chocolate chip cookie or a local delight like char kway teow.

Unfortunately, UP doesn't come even close to MyFitnessPal in tracking diet. The interface is beautiful with lots of colourful photos, but ultimately you are on your own to figure out the nutritional value.


The UP is very well-designed, both the band and the app are a pleasure to use. The band is waterproof and inconspicuous, the battery lasts at least a week and it is almost effortless. The app is well-designed and easy to use. My only issue is that it is not particularly useful. I'm not sure why the sleep and movement measures are so inaccurate, because Jawbone keeps the technology behind it tightly under wraps. So the only way to try it is to buy it - and I'm afraid I can't recommend others to do so.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Great Baby Photography in 5 Simple Steps

Your baby is on the way and you've just decided you want to record all the special moments. What do you need to know? Let me break it down for you in 5 simple steps that have worked well for me over the years.

1) Buy a Digital SLR

You want a DLSR if you can afford it, because there is a very visible difference in image quality. Quite apart from the higher resolution, only an SLR can consistently give you the nice bokeh effect - where the subject is in focus and the background is blurred. However, you don't need to get a top of the line DLSR. A basic DLSR like the Canon EOS700D should more than suffice for a beginner, and it is a lot smaller than the pro models. I subscribe to the belief that "the best camera is the one that you have" - and the smaller the camera, the more likely you are to carry it around with you and catch those precious moments.

The best way to keep costs down is to buy your equipment second-hand, at forums like ClubSnap.

2) Buy a Lens

To shoot babies, you need a fast lens - this refers to a lens that can capture fairly quick movements, because babies don't hold that smile for you (how this works). The speed of a lens is measured by it's aperture rating, or how much light the lens allows in. Ideally you want something f/2.8 or below. And because you don't need a zoom lens, the absolute best starter lens for a baby photographer is a prime lens such as the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II, which only costs about USD100 and is very compact. It's all you need for the first year, until baby starts crawling.

To shoot toddlers, you now need a zoom lens, which unfortunately won't be as fast or as cheap as a prime lens. You should get a lens that is rated at least f/2.8, and not something rated f/2.8-5.6, which means that at the longer zooms the aperture shrinks to f/5.6. You will want a zoom of about  17-70mm. For crop-frame DSLRs like the 700D, you need to multiply this by a factor of 1.6 for the effective zoom (explanation here). The Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 USD has worked well for me, as an alternative to the similar Canon lenses. Although image quality is a bit worse, and the autofocus is slightly slower, the lens is smaller and cheaper.

3) Adjust the Av Settings

Cameras come with many modes. 99% of the time, my camera is on the Av mode, with the maximum aperture. This achieves two things. Firstly, it allows the maximum shutter speed so that the image of the child is sharp. Secondly, it creates the minimum depth of field, which translates into maximum background blur.

The only time I make the aperture smaller is if I am shooting multiple kids at once, or for some other reason I want to increase the depth of field. The only other mode I use is Tv mode. I do this when the lighting is really very bad, and I need to set Tv to about 1/100 in order that the child is not blurred. Then I let the camera compensate by bumping up the ISO (when set too high this makes the photo grainy). If the lighting is really bad, I may even set the camera to under-expose. In the worst case, I will use flash.

4) Set Spot Metering

The camera has many different metering modes. Personally, I always use spot metering, because with a shallow depth of field you want to ensure that your primary subject is clearly in focus. My Canon allows me to manually select which focus point I want to use (the red dot). In practise, I've found it more reliable to always use the centre dot to focus (press the trigger down halfway), then shift the camera to the desired framing.

5) Activate the Motor Drive

My camera is permanently set to motor drive. This means that when you hold down the trigger, it will take a continuous burst of photos. But if you just snap the trigger, it takes one shot as usual. The thing that moves quickest on babies is their facial expression, so this is a useful way to get the perfect expression. But it also means you need to weed through and delete the unwanted ones.

Wi-Fi Uploads

My last tip is not about taking a better picture, but getting it to your camera. The nature of documenting your baby growing up is that you might take a handful of photos here and there throughout the day, or every few days. It's rather tedious to have to pop the SD Card into a reader every time you do this. So a very effective solution to saving this effort is to get a wireless SD Card like the Eye-Fi, unless your camera itself already comes with Wi-Fi. These cards are not cheap, but worth their weight in gold!