Several months ago, I read a series of articles about flashlights by Ben Brooks, a blogger whose posts I enjoy. His article convinced me that my iPhone flashlight may not be as useful as I once imagined. I decided to buy a dedicated flashlight and see.
We’ve been saving a long time to buy a drone. We finally got one, the DJI Mavic Pro. If you read the interwebs, it feels like everyone agrees this is the drone to own for most people. This is our first drone. I thought flying would be hard (it wasn’t). I thought the camera would operate like most other consumer cameras (like an iPhone or GoPro—it doesn’t). Here are things that have stood out to me while learning how to operate the drone.
Easy to fly
As I prepped for the first flight, I was really worried about crashing the drone. I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to fly and control. If you’re careful, it seems like crashes should be easily avoided.
This video shows my first experience using the drone. The maiden flight was in the mountains (American Fork Canyon, Utah). I was able to use Active Track flight mode to follow our Jeep, and manual control to capture some other shots. The movements are a bit rough, but overall not bad for a first attempt.
After a bit of practice, I’ve been able to pull off some cool movements using manual controls. The shots of Corona Arch in the video above were fully automatic. At this point, I still had less than 5 hours total flight time logged when I did these shots.
I wasn’t prepared for all the different flight modes offered with the drone. The in-app controls aren’t incredibly helpful or descriptive, so I had to turn to Youtube to figure out what they are all used for.
So far, besides manual control I use the Active Track mode the most, which has the drone follow a subject. I’ve used it successfully to track the Jeep several times. I still haven’t figured out the optimal following distance to use so it doesn’t lose the subject.
I’ve also used Tripod mode and Cinematic mode a few times. Tripod mode slows everything down to make it easy to create nice, slow shots. Cinematic mode allows near full speeds but smooths everything out, so you can’t have abrupt stops and movements.
But, for the most part, I just use the manual flight modes (unless I’m driving the Jeep).
I’ve been very impressed with the DJI iOS app. I suppose this should be expected for an app used to fly a drone, but nonetheless, it’s impressive. They do a great job with presenting helpful flight information, and allowing for configuration of the drone. Well done.
Fly home setting
The drone has the ability to set a home location, which it can return to automatically. I’ve never used it. It makes me nervous, especially when I’m flying around trees, hills, or anything else which the drone might decide to fly into. Also, since I’m often part of the (moving) subject being recorded, I don’t want the drone to return to home, but to my new location. Maybe I’ll use it one day but, for now, I fly the drone in manually.
The size of this drone is remarkable. I had a professional video camera in high school that was larger and heavier than the Mavic. It’s light but doesn’t feel cheep.
It’s remarkable how easy it is to pack the drone around. I bought a hard case for the drone and controller that are just bigger than each device. It’s easy to throw them in my backpack, or under the seat of our Jeep.
I feel like setting up the controller is a bit cumbersome, only because I don’t want to leave my phone in the controller all the time. Getting it in is a bit of a wrestling match. I did purchase a holder that would let me use an iPad in the controller, but so far the portability of using the phone has won out.
Image settings—This is no point and shoot camera
I was expecting the drone to behave similarly to a point/shoot device. It technically can be used that way, but the results are mediocre at best. The drone also has strange behaviors in auto mode. The auto exposure is wacky, and the white balance will change at random times. In addition, the image is uninspiring. I didn’t play with every color profile, but I discovered online that the photographers with the best results don’t use any of the special color profiles.
This is a professional tool. In order to get decent results, you have to shoot full manual. This means setting the shutter speed, ISO, and white balance to all be manual (there is no aperture setting—it has a fixed aperture, which I also didn’t realize). I leave a histogram visible on the screen so I can quickly make exposure adjustments on the fly.
In addition, the best results come from shooting in D-log mode, which is a very flat, grey shooting mode. This mode is intentionally drab, and intended to make color correction and color grading more successful. After shooting in D-log and doing some color correction, the resulting images are fantastic. However, I didn’t anticipate needing to add color correction to my workflow.
Shutter speed and ND filters
I’ve learned the ideal shutter speed for 30fps video is 1/60. The primary reason is that this optimizes the amount of motion blur in your images. You may be asking, “Why do I want blurry video?” The reason is that our eyes see motion with blur, and this shutter speed/frame rate combo is close to how our eye sees things. If a video is too sharp (not enough motion blur) the video looks sort of…jumpy. Check out this video to see the difference. So, for this reason, videographers aim for a longer shutter speed than photographers. In photography, you often use a faster shutter speed to increase the chance of a sharp image.
The problem with the drone is that the aperture is fixed. This limits the options you have for controlling exposure. You want to set your shutter speed to be 1/60, but you can’t adjust the aperture to compensate for the additional light. You can change ISO, but on a sunny day, the lowest ISO setting won’t do enough.
So, it seems that everyone uses ND filters on their drone. These are little attachments that you stick on the drone lens to darken the image. This allows you to correctly expose shots at or near the ideal shutter speed.
It’s so awesome.
Having drone footage is so awesome. By no means am I an expert yet, but I’ve been able to capture some shots I’m very happy with.
One question we get asked frequently is how do we connect to the internet in our RV. The simple answer is that we are on Verizon’s Unlimited Data plan. The long answer is that we had to make several adjustments to our setup in order to keep all devices connected and operating, no matter where we are camped. After a great deal of trial and error, we’re finally happy with our setup and we’re ready to share it with the four people who read the blog. This setup could be used by anyone living in an RV, or who is forced to rely on Verizon (or another cell company) as their only source of internet.
iPads and iPhones
The best internet experience is with devices that connect directly to Verizon’s network: our iPhones and iPads. The iOS devices each have unlimited LTE data (with some important caveats which I’ll explain later). This means they have the fastest, most reliable connections. As a result, my wife and I both use our iPads a lot, and our laptops very little. I’ve been using my iPad as my primary work device for a couple years now, and working from the cellular iPad is, for me, a dream. We recently got another iPad so my wife could enjoy the benefits of a cellular iPad. The iPad isn’t as ideal for her real estate work. For instance, many bank systems are antiquated and don’t support touch devices well. She’s adjusted and found a good setup for her tasks.
Initially, we thought we’d simply tether other devices to our iOS devices, but this proved to not work. At. All. Not only was it inconvenient (imagine re-tethering 5 devices every time you return home), some devices never operated properly when using a tethered connection.
Occasionally, for work, I’ll tether my laptop to my iPad or iPhone. Fortunately I don’t need to do this very often. I also have to be careful because I’m limited to 15gigs of LTE tethering per device per month.
Our love/hate relationship with the Jetpack
The rest of our devices get internet from a Verizon Jetpack device. A Jetpack is a small device, about the size of a deck of cards, that gets internet from Verizon and shares it with up to 15 devices via WiFi.
The Jetpack doubles as a wireless router. In the name of minimizing, we left our high quality Netgear router in storage and used the Jetpack for our wireless network. This proved to be a mistake—the Jetpack is a terrible router. While it allowed each device to connect to the internet, the signal strength wasn’t great and didn’t reliably broadcast its signal throughout our RV. It also didn’t handle local network connections very well. This meant playing movies on our Apple TV via Airplay or over Plex was out of the question, as was doing file transfers between devices.
So, we pulled our Netgear router out of storage, only to discover you can’t connect the Jetpack to a router. It seems they designed it this way as the Jetpack has no Ethernet output, only USB output. The USB connection is meant for giving internet to a computer, so hypothetically it could connect to a router with a USB input. But, apparently they’ve locked down the USB connection on Jetpacks to only work with Windows computers.
So, as a temporary fix, I did something clever with my wife’s laptop. Macs allow you to share internet connections from any source to any other source. So, I connected the laptop to the Jetpack via WiFi which gave me an internet connection, and I shared that connection out using the Ethernet port on the Mac, and plugged it into our router. Boom.
However, having an expensive laptop basically only functioning as an internet forwarding device seemed silly and wasteful, so I started looking for other options. I found this IOGear Ethernet to WiFi Adapter on Amazon. It’s designed to connect older devices, like TV’s that have Ethernet connections only, to a WiFi network.
This seemed like a promising option, but my limited networking knowledge made me concerned. I’ve learned that more links (or devices) there are in a network chain, the more likely I am to encounter problems that I can’t resolve. Thankfully, I was able to get all the pieces working. The Jetpack connects to Verizon, the IOGear connects to the Jetpack and shares the connection via Ethernet to my router, and all our wireless devices connect to the router. The router basically functions in bridge mode and it all seems to work fine.
We finally have a good internet and WiFi solution. We have a high quality WiFi router for allowing our devices to talk to each other on the local network, and each of these devices has access to the internet (albeit slow internet) because the Jetpack is connected to the router.
One of the reasons we’ve been Verizon customers is their outstanding network coverage. RV living means we’re always pushing the boundaries of where we can connect like never before, especially since we are always looking for remote (and free) camping options.
When planning our travel route, and especially when trying to select a location to camp, we always check a coverage map to make sure we’re going to have service. Two apps in particular have been helpful.
- Coverage which has quite detailed coverage maps for all networks
- Sensorly which aggregates user submitted data about signal strength and speeds.
These two apps help us predict what kind of coverage we can expect in a new area. They aren’t 100% accurate, but for the most part they’ve been dependable.
Generally, we’ve been able to find good camping areas that also have Verizon coverage. There’s only been one or two occasions we’ve had to scramble to find different camping options because we couldn’t find coverage in areas we thought we’d be able to connect. It would be nice, on occasion, if we could park in areas with no signal (such as inside of National Parks) but we still have bills to pay so we stay where we have service.
To help us stay connected in rural areas, and to increase the number of amazing places we can camp, we use a WeBoost Drive 4G-X system. Basically, this system can take you from 1 bar to full bars. If you are constantly on the edge of connectivity, like we are, this system is your best friend.
We’ve camped in several areas where the signal strength was essentially fluctuating between one bar and No Service. We flip on the booster and we have almost full signal strength. I’m able to do my video conferencing for work, stream videos, and more. This thing works.
The system we purchased is the trucker version with a heavy duty outdoor antenna. We mounted it to the rear of the RV. To avoid feedback, your outdoor antenna is supposed to be far away from the indoor unit, and ours certainly is.
The indoor antenna that came with our bundle works well, but only if you’re sitting right next to it. In fact, I often have to set my phone or iPad right on the antenna to get the boosting effect. It works, unquestionably, but the range is terrible.
We recently bought a new indoor antenna, but haven’t had the chance to test its efficacy yet. Our recent camping spots have had very strong signal strength, so we haven’t been able to test. We hope it allows all devices in the RV to get the boosting effect.
Verizon’s unlimited plan has some important restrictions that we always bump up against.
Once each device uses 22gb of data, that device is still allowed to connect at speeds “up to” LTE speed, but your data is prioritized behind other customers. I’ve spoken to Verizon to better understand this limitation, and I was told the prioritization happens at a specific cell tower, not the entire Verizon network. So, in some areas you won’t notice any slowdown! In others, you can barely load your email.
We’ve observed that the closer we are to cities, the slower our internet is. We suspect the cell towers in cities are far more overloaded than rural ones. However, crowds in rural areas can overload a tower, and when that happens the internet feels broken since there are fewer cell towers supporting the crowds.
Perhaps the most interesting case was in Moab, Utah a few weeks ago. We happened to be here during Fall Break, when all the Utah schools had a long weekend. Moab was extremely crowded, and our internet barely functioned. However, as the weekend came to a close and people started leaving, we watched our speeds slowly return until we were finally enjoying decent internet again.
The second important limitation is our Jetpack. It only gives you LTE speeds for the first 15gigs of data. After that, it’s down to 3g speeds. Each month when our data resets, we don’t even get to enjoy this momentary bit of speed. Our connected devices gobble up that data before we even wake up. Once a month I wake up to texts that say “Congrats, its a new month. You have 15gig of LTE Speed” followed by “Your 15gig of LTE speed has been used. You will have 3g speeds until the billing cycle resets in 30 days”.
I’d love LTE speeds for our Jetpack. However, the 3g speeds are enough to allow our other devices to function. It is incredibly slow, but at least it works.
What about free WiFi?
Many RVers take advantage of free WiFi at businesses, libraries, or RV parks. There are WiFi boosting antennas that even allow you to connect to networks over a mile away.
For us, 90% of our camping has been miles away from civilization and businesses who might offer free WiFi. At some point, we may look into this option further, but so far it doesn’t seem like it’d be much help for us.
Hey, at least it’s internet!
Our internet feels nothing like the high-speed residential WiFi networks we were used to. It’s nowhere near as fast, or reliable. Many of our devices feel like crippled versions of themselves (goodbye Xbox live, goodbye Netflix streaming on Apple TV).
That being said, we wake up most mornings in places like this (this photo is a view from my bedroom window). We stay out in the middle of nowhere, and we’re able to communicate with the world. We are able to do all of our work. We can still watch Youtube and Netflix (on our iPhones and iPads). We haven’t had to sacrifice much (from an internet perspective) to make this lifestyle work.
There are two product categories that I’ve spent way too much time and money on. One of them is task management, and the other is budgeting/financial tools. In some ways, I’m glad there are an abundance of budgeting tools out there; everyone deals with their money differently. I’ve personally felt like every tool has required I make compromises in how I deal with my money. Until PocketSmith.
PocketSmith is my new budgeting tool, and I feel much more confident about this transition than any others I’ve made in the past.
This won’t be a full on review, but here are some highlights. I’m also not going to include screenshots from my own usage because, well, my finances are none of your business 😉. I’m also going to admit I’m too lazy to purge screenshots of personal data. Maybe one day if my blog gets tons of traffic…
Forecasting seems to be a foundational piece of PocketSmith’s DNA. In my opinion, the lack of good forecasting tools render other budgeting apps worthless. I want to be able to see how my choices today will impact our finances in a month, 6 months, 1 year, and beyond.
I make wiser financial decisions when I can see how a purchase or investment will play out over time. Seeing future balances is extremely motivating. Sometimes forecasts give you a taste of fear, and other times they entice you with a reward (ie a bigger savings/discretionary spending account).
One of the coolest forecasting tools PocketSmith has is scenarios. You can experiment with different financial scenarios and see how it plays out over time. You could, for instance, see how taking the family to Disneyland in March will impact your ability to shop for Christmas gifts in December. Being able to easily do this type of financial experimentation is liberating. It takes the guessing out of the question “What if we..”.
Handling debt accounts
My family has leveraged lines of credit to pay down debt faster and facilitate some business ventures. This means our finances have sometimes been in the negative for a long time. Many tools break when you try to do that.
I feel like PocketSmith handles and displays debt accounts the way I think of them which is that they are treated no differently than a checking account. Sure, you can also input limits and interest but functionally they operate the same as a checking account. I love it.
If you frequently use overdraft accounts, you know the pain of dealing with transfers. This could almost be it’s own section, but Pocketsmith handles transfers well. On Quicken, for instance, I had to constantly check to make sure transfers were recorded correctly in both account ledgers. The transfer matching in Pocketsmith eliminates the double entry.
Some of the best apps out there force you to use a 1st–31st monthly budget. This is absurd. Credit cards don’t follow that schedule. Paychecks don’t always align perfectly to months. I get paid on the 15th and 30th now, but I used to get checks every fortnight (2 weeks), which meant some months I’d get 3 paychecks instead of 2. Monthly budgets are impractical today.
PocketSmith budgets are set up exactly how your finances work in real life. You can also set them up to work how you spend. Do you like setting a weekly limit on a category? You can! Do you like putting money aside for yearly expenses? You can!
Seriously, PocketSmith has the best budgeting flow I’ve encountered yet. They are a bit more complex to understand than the simple monthly bucket of money, but significantly more useful.
Importing and Categorization
If I’m honest (which I do try to be on occasion), Quicken is the king of importing and categorization. It helps that the banking industry has largely built their exporting tools around Quicken. I feel like all the non-Quicken tools are too optimistic in how accurate or helpful their importing and categorization is. I appreciate that PocketSmith knows it’s hard to get auto-categorization right. So, they let you choose how categorization happens.
First, you can completely disable auto categorization (which I’ve done). At first, I didn’t understand why this was a helpful feature, but doing this prevents importing new categories from the bank (a common trait for non-Quicken tools—PocketSmith isn’t immune here). No more cleaning up my categories lists.
Second, you can create rules or filters for merchants. I know that Costco Gas is always going to be categorized as “Gas”, so I can create a filter to assign all Costco Gas transactions as “Gas”. Think of this like the old Gmail filters. This type of control is far superior to the “black box” auto assign method most other apps take.
Finally, they have a categorization “inbox” of sorts. Their mobile app is even focused on categorization. For me, this means all my Amazon or Costco transactions are sitting, waiting for me to categorize them. Since those merchants almost always span more than one of my budget categories, I appreciate being able to process them manually, rather than trying to see where a faulty auto-categorizing tool placed them.
Net worth tracking + Reports
As we’ve started doing more investing, tracking net worth has become more important to us. PocketSmith offers this and does it well. Several investing gurus recommend tracking your net worth, and now I’ll be able to do it automatically instead of relying on my never-up-to-date spreadsheet.
They also offer the typical reports you’d expect in a decent financial tool. Income/Expense report, category reports, and more.
Tools I’ve tried before
This is not an exhaustive list because there are literally tools I can’t remember the name of:
- Quicken—It’s adequate at most things and amazing at nothing
- You Need a Budget—I love how opinionated the product is. I really wish this one had worked out better. It didn’t work well with debt accounts and I could never figure out how to track credit card spending correctly.
- Mint—who hasn’t tried this. It’s an expense tracker, not a good budget tool
- MoneyWiz—Love that mobile devices get all the same functionality as desktop. Despite the seemingly clean design, it’s cumbersome and frustrating to use.
- Personal Capital
- Quickbooks—Complicated. Works pretty well for personal finance but it’s clearly overkill. Way too expensive.
- Billguard (now Prosper Daily)—great for having a transaction “inbox” but not much else
- Banktivity/iBank—Very Quicken-like but harder to use and really ugly to look at