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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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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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.

iOS 10 Tone Dialing

Maybe this is not a common thing for folks to do with their phones these days, but I have a few numbers programmed into my contacts that include access codes, or similar, to be dialed after the main number. Some of them are conference service access sequences, one is a calling card from my home VoIP provider (CallCentric) that lets me make international calls at VoIP rates (a fraction of what AT&T would charge me if I just dialed direct from the phone) and one connects me to my mother’s SIP line in the UK via a service called SIP Broker, giving me free calls to her even when I am on my mobile phone here.

While I certainly could remember all the access codes, PINs and even my mother’s SIP number, it is much simpler to just program them into contacts so they are dialed automatically. This has worked beautifully on all my iPhones to date and even on my Android phones. Until iOS 10. When I first upgraded my iPhone 6s to iOS 10 GM, I noticed that the tone replay was much faster. I also noticed that SIP Broker was having trouble understanding it sometimes (I would estimate around 25% of the time). When the iPhone 7 arrived though, that failure rate jumped to 100%. I could not get these numbers to dial at all unless I did it manually.

I believe the tones are long enough on iOS 10, but I suspect the gaps between them are too short. That is somewhat confirmed by the fact that adding a pause between each digit allowed it to work (but it took nearly 30 seconds to dial the number!).

Analyzing the Tones

Since the tone replay is audible, I fired up Audacity on my Mac and simply recorded three phones replaying the tones to access the CallCentric test number via a local SIP Broker PSTN gateway:

(415) 594 0355,*462,17770000001

On the iPhone 7 (running iOS 10.0.2), the trace looked like this:

iPhone 7 / iOS 10

You can see from there that the gap between the tones is very, very short. In fact, just 5-10ms compared to a tone time of around 200ms. This reinforces the belief that it is the gap that is the problem.

For comparison, here is iOS 9 running on an iPhone 5c:

iPhone 5c / iOS 9

This one has slightly longer tone periods (about 250ms), but the gaps are much, much longer at around 100ms. That is 10x the length of the gaps on the iPhone 7.

Finally, I tried my Nexus 5X running Android 7 to see whether they’d had the same idea of reducing the gaps, but no, the Nexus has both longer tones (over 300ms of tone) and longer gaps (around 150ms):

Nexus 5X / Android 7

What Does the Spec Say?

So, there was always a chance that this is something that an engineer at Apple, for whatever reason, decided they could adjust to make their tone replay feature more compliant with a standard specification. Indeed, there is a specification for DTMF (pdf) from the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). In that specification there are defined minimum durations for both the tone and the pause between tones.

The tone duration is defined like this:

Where the DTMF signalling tone duration is controlled automatically by the transmitter, the duration of any individual DTMF tone combination sent shall not be less than 65 ms. The time shall be measured from the time when the tone reaches 90 % of its steady-state value, until it has dropped to 90 % of its steady-state value.

The pause duration is defined like this:

Where the DTMF signalling pause duration is controlled automatically by the transmitter the duration of the pause between any individual DTMF tone combination shall not be less than 65 ms. The time shall be measured from the time when the tone has dropped to 10 % of its steady-state value, until it has risen to 10 % of its steady-state value.

So, that iPhone 7 time, looks to me to be well below the minimum pause time!

iPhone 7 Thoughts

apple-iphone7Disclaimers up front: I do not have one, and have not seen one in real life yet. I have one pre-ordered (but won’t get it until October). These thoughts are mostly based on reviews and articles online.

Up until tonight, it wasn’t clear how successful this iPhone launch was going to be. The hardware design was certainly not significantly different from the previous two generations; something of a diversion from the previous rhythm of a new physical look every other year. Tonight though Apple seems to have announced that the iPhone 7 Plus models are totally sold out in pre-order (all colors), as is the jet black color iPhone 7. That suggests that there was still plenty of demand for the new phone.

There were clues: the jet black 7 was showing delivery into October less than half an hour after pre-ordering opened. The website & store apps were also struggling during that early period of ordering. Of course, the cynical will state that selling out can be a result of having too few available, intentionally or otherwise, as well as because of demand. Unless we get sales numbers from somewhere, there is no way to answer that.

The announcement, while much of it had leaked ahead of time (Apple’s famous security seems to be struggling to contain the details these days), has a few interesting points, some controversial, others less so.

Headphone Jack

Let’s get the most controversial (apparently) issue out of the way first: the removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack. Who cares? Really, why are you not using wireless headphones already? For the few occasions when you can’t, use the adapter or the included lightning headset. Apparently, most people just use the included headphones with their phones anyway, so for the majority this is totally a non-issue; for the rest, get a Bluetooth headset or headphones. Using Bluetooth headphones also resolves the charging while listening issue (I do it all the time in the office).

I have a set of Tzumi sports buds that I use for calls and listening to music on my commute. In the office, I use a set of AncStudio Noise Canceling headphones which, while not being the best noise canceling headphones out there, seem pretty reasonable to me (our CEO and VP of Engineering play Jenga a few feet from my desk, and the AncStudio noise canceling is good enough to totally mute the sound of collapsing Jenga towers). They claim to be able to work for calls too, but my experience with that has been disappointing (people say it is hard to hear me clearly and I usually switch to the Tzumi ones for calls now).

For more serious listening, I bought a Voxoa BTunes adapter for my Bose QC-3 headphones, though if I was buying headphones today I would probably go for the new Bose QC-35 ones with Bluetooth built in. Both options get you a microphone too, and unlike the AncStudio experience, the BTunes adapter on my QC-3 works well for calls.

What About AirPods?

Seriously? Fancy Bluetooth extensions aside, these seem more than a bit overpriced, especially for something that just looks odd. My Tzumi ones cost me less than $20 (on sale at Old Navy believe it or not), and while I’m sure they don’t sound as good as the AirPods, they were simple to pair with my phone, connect instantly I switch them on and they stay in my ears better than any of Apple’s headphones have ever done. They also sound just fine to me for what I use them for.

Jet Black

This was a tough one for me. My decision was always between black and jet black, but the susceptibility to scratches worried me. In the end though, I fell for the shiny object and plunked for jet black. I keep my phones in sleeve cases, so they are well protected in my pocket, but naked in use. My iPhone 6 & 6s have lived in a sleeve from Joli Originals which has worked really well. The iPhone 7 will start in the same sleeve, but I might treat it to a new one in a month or so 🙂

Cameras

I still believe the iPhone 7 Plus is too large for me, so despite the new dual camera trick being interesting, the camera that I looked for improvements in was the one in the smaller phone. OIS was a nice addition there, as was the new optics.

I do wish they’d remove the bump though (a slightly thicker phone would be fine IMHO), but I notice it more because I use the phone without a case. So, when I put it down I have to remember to place it on the case rather than directly on the desk. (On a positive note, that behaviour pattern, already learned from the 6/6s, will hopefully keep the jet black finish looking good for longer.)

As for the effects available with the twin camera design, I carry my tiny, but exceptionally powerful, Canon S120 almost everywhere. I’m pretty sure it will outperform even the fancy dual camera setup in the iPhone 7 Plus.

Water Resistant

I’m not sure how much I care about this, but I do think it is about time a premium phone like the iPhone was at the very least water resistant. I was shocked when the first generation of Apple Watch was not truly waterproof (something I see they fixed for the second generation). I don’t expect to swim with my phone, so water resistant is fine.

Storage Upgrades

A big factor in my decision to upgrade was the fact that the 128GB storage drops from the top price tier to the middle tier. That means my monthly payments for the new phone will be lower than for the old one, even with the same storage (and I don’t really need 128GB – I still have plenty of space even with the 7000+ photos and videos I have on it).

Apple vs Law Enforcement

I’ve said a few things about this on Twitter already, but what amazes me here is that they are not asking Apple to turn over the key, or even to decrypt the data using a key they already have. Instead, they are trying to say they can force a private company to dedicate resources to writing a special version of their software, installing it on a device and then allowing the FBI remote access to the device.

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Pebble Time Steel: Initial Impressions

Pebble Time SteelOne of the new toys that arrived last week was my new Pebble Time Steel watch. This was one I was excited about as, despite some occasional problems with my original Pebble & Pebble Steel watches, I am still a believer in the platform and decided to go with the Pebble Time Steel rather than an Apple Watch.

I’m not going to do the traditional unboxing photos, suffice to say it came presented more like a watch this time (in very retail-friendly packaging, so I expect to see these hanging in my local Target store soon alongside the other Pebble watches they carry already).

The other big change is the style aspect. Personally, I like the new style, though I do agree with some of the other reviews I’ve read that the black border around the screen seems very large on the Time. It would have been nice to see a screen that went much closer to the edges of the watch. Of course, that would have made the screen a different pixel size to the current ones which introduces a bunch of complexities for developers, but we cope with that on Android and iOS, and even on the Apple Watch.

My watch shipped with only the leather strap. The metal bands for the Kickstarter orders are on backorder and will be coming later; I believe the retail orders only come with the leather bands though.

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Smartwatch Thoughts

Black Pebble Time SteelWith what seems like my entire Twitter timeline getting excited about their new Apple Watches (arriving, one after the other today it seems), I thought it would be a good time to review some of my thoughts on smartwatches, and in particular why I have not pre-ordered an Apple Watch. In fact, not only have I not pre-ordered an Apple Watch, but I have “pre-ordered” (through their Kickstarter campaign) a new Pebble Time Steel watch.

What are the pros and cons of each in my opinion (and remember, that’s all this is – my opinion; you are welcome to disagree with me and choose whichever smartwatch works best for you, or even not get one at all).

Battery Life

This is the big one for me. I already charge way too many things every day (I carry multiple phones for work, typically an iPad and a laptop, and I also have a Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire and a pair of bluetooth headphones that I have to remember to keep charged). My Pebble and my Fitbit One are my best friends w.r.t. charging since they’re roughly once a week! Getting a 20% battery life warning on my current Pebble Steel doesn’t bother me – that’s still at least a day of normal use.

Less than 24 hours seems like a big miss to me. That means one more thing I need to find an overnight charging spot for. The new Pebble Time Steel claims up to 10 days with a colour screen. I just think that Apple could have pushed the technology here.

Overall Design

I think this one is actually a tie for the new Pebble Time Steel vs the Apple Watch (in fact, I’ve seen some photos that suggest they look pretty similar). Neither wows me as much as the Moto 360, but there are plenty of reasons why I am not interested in that family of smartwatches. I do have to concede that the circular design looks stunning though. I would have loved to see a rectangular and a circular design from Apple rather than just two rectangles in (barely – just 4mm) different sizes.

That said, my two existing Pebbles look fine to me, and more importantly don’t scream smartwatch to everybody. I wear my black Pebble steel every day and get very few comments about it. I ordered the new one in black too.

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Ongoing Pebble Issues


Update: Check out my more recent update on my Pebble experiences too.

Anybody following along here will know that I have been having intermittent connection issues, as well as bluetooth audio interference issues, with my Pebble smartwatch. But more than that, I have been having issues with their customer support. Not to mention having their Chief Evangelist accuse me of whining, and then block me on Twitter. Great way to treat your customers. Guess she doesn’t want to actually hear from real users. 

On October 17, I was given this answer by one of their support folks:

We well received your logs, and will review them thoroughly and have a reply by Tuesday. Thanks for your patience.

That was a Friday. By the next Friday, October 24, I had still heard nothing other than another canned response on a different case number because I submitted more logs through their app and it generates a new case each time suggesting I upgrade to iOS 8.1 (which I had already done, and which has made no difference).

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Apple Pay Experiences

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Monday of this week saw iOS 8.1 land on Apple devices, and perhaps the most expected feature in the update was Apple Pay; the new NFC based, Touch ID approved payment service that was going to revolutionize how we pay for things. Or not, because of course NFC based payments have existed in Android phones for a while now, and even in plastic credit cards (mostly outside the US, but my Wells Fargo Visa card has both a chip and touch pay capabilities).

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