Apple Watch

I’ve had my Apple Watch now for a few months and I’ve become comfortable with it in that time, although there are still things I miss from my Pebble. With the Pebble support waning, and Fitbit not seeming to understand anything about those of us who want a smart watch rather than a fitness tracker, the switch to the Apple Watch came at a good time.

This is a very quick summary of what I like and what I do not like, but I will prefix this by saying overall I am very happy with the Apple Watch experience.

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B Class Electric: Initial Reactions

Since all the electric car options I am considering are at least 18 months out, but my lease was up at the end of August, I needed to pick a replacement car that made sense, but also that didn’t commit me to another 3 year lease. As luck would have it, an off lease 2014 electric Mercedes B Class that was in great shape was listed on my dealer’s website. So, that’s what we did; swapping my fun roadster for an electric 5 seat family car. This is my initial reaction to both the B Class and owning an electric car.

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Mercedes Benz New Lease Return Process

It has been a little while now, but I still feel that the new pre-inspection process that Mercedes Benz Financial Services have imposed at the end of their leases is a huge mis-step. Perhaps other people have had different experiences with lease returns, but mine have always been very smooth & trouble free. This new process changes that, and not positively.

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Thoughts: Internet of Things

Much of the IoT hype is really just the final arrival of the promised connected devices – something that was being touted as imminent while I was at Wind River, but which really needed Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to come of age first. Today, connected devices are everywhere. Even cars are connected.

Now we live in a world where devices can be connected to a home or office network without requiring cabling. And we can wear lightweight devices that can take advantage of the more powerful computer in our pockets (aka a smartphone) for Internet connectivity using just low power Bluetooth connections. In some cases, even permanent devices, like smart door locks, can be battery-powered and use Bluetooth to connect to a local "bridge" device.

In addition to that always on connectivity, these devices needed simpler controls. Whether touch screens that can adapt, or, more recently, voice control, without more natural controls, many IoT devices would be too complex.

Finally, the arrival of meaningful AI is helping make many of these devices at least seem smarter, and be easier to interact with. Often with natural language, or by having the device simply observe & learn.

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Electric Car Dilemmas

My current car’s lease comes to an end later this year (August time frame) and while I totally love it, for a number of reasons I am looking to make a big change this time around. For a start, I have pretty much been told that I cannot get away with a two seater again. Secondly, the replacement for my current car has been made somewhat anemic by downgrading it to a smaller, less powerful engine. Thirdly, I am just not driving it much (I have done just over 4000 miles in the last 28 months, thanks to commuting via ferry or bus and my trusty scooter).

And so I started looking at electric options with an eye to perhaps letting my wife drive it on a daily basis around our little island city, keeping the miles off the car she insisted on buying rather than leasing and saving some fuel costs into the bargain. But what are the options…

Currently Available

Obviously, there are the two Tesla models, but both are well outside what I am willing to pay right now for something I don’t drive more than a few miles per week. So, that leaves a pretty short list; in no particular order:

  • Mercedes B-Class
  • BMW i3
  • Nissan Leaf
  • VW eGolf
  • Chevrolet Bolt
  • Ford Focus
  • Fiat 500e
  • Smart ForTwo

There are a few others too, but basically that list is the ones I see on the road regularly. Sadly, none of them jump off the screen as being something I really want to drive/own. They all seem somewhat plain and boring.

Coming Soon

Given the sad state of that list, I started looking into what might be coming soon from folks other than Tesla (the new Model 3 looks pretty good on the outside, but the site is very light on actual specs for the car). Interestingly, it seems as though 2018 through 2020 is going to herald a lot more options for electric cars. I found strong contenders from Mercedes, Audi and Jaguar, albeit essentially all SUVs. Even now, I cannot find any manufacturer planning an electric convertible, which is disappointing for me since I love open top motoring (I even had convertibles when I was living in the UK, so now I’m in California it just makes even more sense to me to drive with the top down).

Mercedes EQC

My current favourite, although not slated to arrive until 2019 at the earliest, is what is currently being called the Mercedes EQC. Much like the Tesla, there is very little information on what this will actually look like, but if the interior is anything like the current show concept vehicle, I want one. This thing resembles a science fiction space ship:

Generation EQ, Interior

The videos released for the concept just add to that image of it being a space craft. I seriously hope that as much of this interior as possible makes it into the production car.

Audi eTron

Not one, but two different cars bearing this tag are coming in the next 12-24 months. The first looks as though it will be a mid-size SUV (between the Q5 and Q7 in size). No idea of final pricing, but if you live in Norway you can pre-order one right now. The exterior looks pretty similar to the new Q5 and Q7, perhaps taking the more angular design of the latest cars a little further. The interior of the concept they’ve been showing also looks more like an evolution of current technology:

The “virtual cockpit” dashboard in there has already made an appearance in the current generation Q7 and Q5 cars (and, based on experiences with our new Q5 so far, it is a gorgeous experience). Clearly, this one has more screens, and less buttons though. All good in my books, but it doesn’t scream space ship at me like the EQC does.

The second car, coming during 2019, is a “sportback”/coupe version of the SUV. Perhaps a better fit for me than a pure SUV, but realistically it still doesn’t excite me as much as a convertible would.

Jaguar I-Pace

This one caught my attention last year, and was a bit of a surprise. I was not expecting the Jaguar brand to be where the first electric vehicle appeared from the Jaguar Land Rover family. Compared to the Merc and the Audi, the I-Pace seems like a strong contender however. Good range, amazing 0-60 time and fairly practical as well. Much like the Audi, this isn’t in the space craft realm for interiors, but it does look like a big evolutionary step from their current cars.

When I was choosing my current car, I test drove the convertible F-type from Jaguar. While the driving experience was fantastic, and nobody can deny that the F-type looks gorgeous, I was disappointed with the details that were missing in a car at its price point. Even more so when compared to the Mercedes SLK and Porsche Boxster. It concerns me that the same may well be the case with the I-Pace.

The Dilemma

The dilemma I now face is that with my lease ending in August this year, and all these new, more exciting electrics arriving late next year or beyond, what do I do to fill the gap?

Right now, I am leaning towards buying a used electric from the boring list earlier. Perhaps the Mercedes B250e. Not ideal but it would be a good fill in for that year or so, and also could be used around our home city to keep the miles down on the Q5.

Comcast: Back to the House

Amazingly, despite overwhelming amounts of data from myself, and data from people in Oakland, San Francisco and Santa Clara all commenting that their network sees the same issues around the same time of day (late evenings), once again I get a call from Comcast saying they want to come out to my house and attach things to the network here. They truly are fixated with the modem & the cable part of their network. And yet they cannot explain how something in my house could:

  1. Affect me only for bursts of time in the late evening, but be fine most of the rest of the time
  2. Affect other people here, and in various other cities in the bay area

Apparently, they just cannot see that this is probably impacting many of their customers. I have spoken to many here who see the issue but don’t have the patience to deal with Comcast’s totally abysmal customer support system. Even when it gets escalated, it appears they cannot get past it being localized to one house.

If they don’t want to look at the data in their routers, perhaps they should try calling some of their customers in the bay area and asking whether they use the network in the late evening regularly, and whether they have seen any issues with it.

Here’s the latest data I sent them:

January 16, 2017 (averaging 37% packet loss in the test):

January 17, 2017 (averaging 18% packet loss in the test):

Also from January 17, the trace showing losses at Sunnyvale again, and from nodes beyond it (likely dropped at Sunnyvale too – something they’ve always said was not happening):

I get it that their network can get loaded; I work in an industry that sees how much data traffic increases month on month as people use more and more high bandwidth services. But Comcast’s only role here is to provide the pipe to the Internet and keep it from being overloaded. I get it that there are huge swings in traffic volume across a 24 hour period; I don’t necessarily expect to see the full bandwidth during peak hours (right now, at 11am on a weekday, for reference, I am seeing about 30Mbps), but dropping to under 1Mbps is unacceptable. And the times when the packet losses are so great that my router decides the Internet is inaccessible are completely unacceptable. Personally, I would say once it drops below 50% of the bandwidth I’m paying for, that is a problem; I suspect they have a lower percentage in mind, but I doubt it is as low as 1%. If they do consider 1% of the contract bandwidth to be acceptable, perhaps the FCC should take a closer look at the service Comcast provides.

Smartwatch Round Up

The recent acquisition of Pebble by Fitbit, or rather the recent acquisition of some of Pebble’s technology & employees by Fitbit, has left me with a bit of a dilemma. There is a blog post stating that “Fitbit is going out of its way to keep Pebble software and services running through 2017.” Of course, that is only 2017 (and who knows what that really means). But they didn’t buy the hardware, so there will not be new Pebble watches. Of course, it seems likely that there will be a future Fitbit watch with some or all of the Pebble software in it (why else would they buy it), but their existing watches are not very attractive to me.

Then, today, as I was walking to the ferry terminal, this popped up on my phone:

I hadn’t changed watches as far as I knew; in fact, I hadn’t even touched the watch. I happened to look at the phone because I was trying to send a text message. Of course, since the watch had mysteriously reset, I did not get the notification on my wrist. Indeed, my watch had reset completely. Also, when I launched the app on my phone, it wanted me to login again. Logging in, got me to what looked like an empty account. It also indicated that my health database was corrupted (all that data is lost apparently).

Slowly, bits of the old Pebble environment came back. Some of the watchfaces appeared in the locker, then apps. But I couldn’t make any of the watchfaces active. Then, a little later I could again.

If I had to guess (and so far I have not been able to get an answer from the @FitbitSupport folks on Twitter confirming or denying this), I would say that somebody migrated a backend and in doing so broke something. Or maybe the app just crashed and corrupted something (not like it doesn’t crash a lot recently). For now it is back (minus the health data), but I am wondering how long for, and also whether anybody will fix the iOS app, or even update it to remain compatible with future iOS updates.

Alternatives

That led me to looking for alternatives. There was Vector, until Fitbit acquired them too (and said there won’t be more Vector watches). So, what else have I found?

Withings SteelHR

The Withings SteelHR is an interesting device in that it really is a watch, but I think I would be giving up too much to go back to something that basically had an indicator for notifications on it rather than showing me some of the text.

I’m also kind of used to having options on the watch face (something that a real watch can’t do), and the option to combine several pieces of information on the one display (currently, I have steps, sleep patterns, analog time & date as well as status indicators for battery life and bluetooth connectivity).

CoWatch

The CoWatch reminds me more of an Android or Samsung smartwatch. It has one feature that really stood out though: Amazon’s Alexa integrated inside.

This one checks all the boxes in terms of flexibility, and I do quite like the idea of a round screen. Where is fails is in the reviews that suggest it is not quite there yet. When I bought the original Pebble on Kickstarter, I was also buying into an experiment to see how I liked the idea of a smartwatch. My current Pebble is the third one I’ve owned, and I am totally hooked on the concept. Going back to a beta level watch, with all the connectivity problems and missing features doesn’t appeal at this point.

Also, much like the Android and Apple offerings, this one basically requires charging once a day. That is something that puts me off having grown accustomed to a once a week cycle with the Pebble.

Martian mVoice

The Martian Watches mVoice is another smartwatch with Amazon’s Alexa integrated (and by all accounts the integration is better than the current CoWatch one). But, like the SteelHR, this is an analog watch with a small screen. While it does look like the screen could handle more text than the SteelHR one, it is still much more limited than getting the text message full screen on my Pebble where I can read it.

It is also only splash resistant which makes it a non-starter for me (in the same way that the original Apple watch is not interesting because I can’t swim in it).

Apple Watch Series 2

That takes us to the Apple Watch Series 2. These are water proof, and they certainly deliver on the smartwatch features (although the lack of 3rd party watch faces is still a little odd given they’re up to version 3 of the OS, and there are already native watch apps).

This one also checks all the boxes for fitness tracking, and I don’t think there’s much risk of them being acquired by Fitbit. But, the price! In black stainless steel (which is what my current Pebble is made of) one of these would set me back $600. With a silicone band. Add another $25 for a third party nylon band. (In reality, I’d probably opt for the black aluminium version at $400 with the nylon band, but still, that’s over double what I paid for the Pebble – in fact, I didn’t pay much more than that for all three Pebbles combined!).

The other big negative on this one for me is the short battery life. Charging daily would require thinking about when to charge it; overnight makes sense, unless you want to use the watch for sleep tracking too, which I have grown to like on the Pebble. In the office might work, but what about weekends when I am not sitting at my desk?

Matrix Powerwatch

The Matrix Powerwatch is an outlier in that it doesn’t exist yet. It is still in the crowdfunding stage over on Indiegogo. Its bold claim is that it doesn’t need charging at all – instead it is powered using thermodynamics from your body heat. Take it off and it sleeps (retaining time etc of course); put it back on and it wakes up.

Given its early stage of development, I am not even considering it. It also isn’t clear what the feature set will be in terms of smartwatch capabilities (the photos all seem to be fitness oriented). But never having to charge it sounds great to me! I had a solar powered watch many years ago and loved that aspect of it. I wonder how good this thermodynamics concept is, but if it works, I think it is a great idea.

Conclusions?

I love the increasing number of options in the space, and I still believe that once you have tried a smartwatch you will not go back (even if it is just for the ability to keep your phone in silent mode and filter the interruptions to just the things you really care about). The Apple option is clearly a strong player, but for a little longer at least I am going to stick with my Pebble I think. If it does get to the point that it really isn’t working, right now I think the only viable option for what I’m after is the Apple watch.

Comcast: Not Resolved

It is holiday season so I wasn’t expecting much to happen with the Comcast issue (and to be honest, I haven’t been online at 10pm as much either to notice it), but on December 30th I did get a call from Mark N. in Executive Customer Relations updating me on the fact that the engineering team had not been able to find anything, and telling me they were closing the ticket. He also stated if I saw the issue again that I should let him know and he would re-open it.

At the time, I commented that while I had not been online at the affected hour (10pm Pacific for those new to this thread) to be able to update him on my experience, I felt it was unlikely to have changed given that it has been ongoing for over a year now.

Then, on January 1st, I happened to be online and notice the typical stalls in video streaming and poor performance in Twitter and Facebook with images & videos not loading. I ran some speed tests and traces too, and got these:

Speedtest results

Notice the chart for the download starts high, and then drops fast to a very low level. That is a bit different to previous results (although this was 10:35pm too, and things were starting to improve, especially the video stream). The average is also much higher than it is at the peak of the problem (where I typically see under 1 Mbps download). But, at other times of the day I see 50Mbps or more for the download speeds, and a nice flat intra-test chart.

Traceroute

The trace shows the packet losses at Sunnyvale though, same as always. I suspect that this is the cause of the fast drop in the speed test too as the TCP window size adapts down to cope with the higher than ideal packet loss.

The burst also explains why my command line speed test script didn’t see anything even when the GUI version was showing degradation. I suspect the command line tool is using only a small file, whereas the GUI version I know adapts how much it downloads to make sure it gets a good average.

Another Report

Tonight, I happened to be on Twitter and noticed this tweet about another Comcast customer in the SF Bay Area having issues, and pointing at the Sunnyvale router:

When I reached out to @Pixel, he got back to me with the comment that he sees issues almost every night too around 10pm ± 1 hour. And he is in Santa Clara. So, now I have reports of the same performance problems from Alameda, Oakland, San Francisco and Santa Clara. But still I get this from Comcast support:

I seriously think that Comcast needs to invest in some training for their support people. When Frank Eliason was running the Twitter support team it seemed to be staffed with people who were on the top of their game. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.

The same support person however did let me know that the ticket (ESL02794458) had been closed with the comment that it was resolved. Let me be crystal clear now:

I have never stated that the issue was resolved.

The request to close the ticket came from Comcast because they were unable to find anything. As I mentioned above, my response to that was that I felt it was unlikely to have changed since it had been the same for over a year, but I had not been home at the right time to be able to confirm or deny it was resolved. That is most definitely not the same as me reporting the issue as resolved. Furthermore, for the record:

The issue is not resolved.

And, as should be apparent to the people at Comcast by now, I am not the only customer affected by this. I strongly suggest they get their act together and find out what is causing these performance issues. And I would also suggest that perhaps rather than sitting in the Hayward head end trying to find ways to pin the blame on my modem/router/Wi-Fi, they take a trip to the Sunnyvale router’s location and have a look at what is happening there. It seems too much of a coincidence that that one node always shows high packet loss rates when there are performance issues, and not when everything is working OK.

Not Just Traceroute & Speedtest

One more thing I’ve heard is that these tools might not show problems when the rest of the network performance is OK. Let me be very clear on this for the folks at Comcast too:

I only run Speedtest and traceroute when I see other things failing.

More specifically, the applications I have seen failing are:

  • Video streaming from Amazon and Netflix (stalling, dropping down to the lowest quality stream, and even failing to load the catalog on our Roku box sometimes)
  • Media loading in Facebook & Twitter (text loads, but no images, including avatars/profile pics in many cases)
  • Web pages timing out on loading (especially more complex sites like the NY Times, the Washington Post or even the Amazon home page)
  • Video calling (Google Hangouts, FaceTime etc) disconnecting repeatedly

Only when I see something like that failing do I think to run speed tests or traceroute on my home network.