Infinity Magnetic USB-C

My magnetic USB-C cable finally arrived at the end of last week, and I have the tip installed on the right side of my MBP, taking up one of the precious USB-C ports.

First impressions? The cable itself seems to be a good quality braided cable. The magnetic tip protrudes from the laptop a little more than I’d like (oh, Apple, why did you not embed this in the laptop and do MagSafe over USB-C?).

The magnet itself, while sold as using the “world’s strongest magnets” do not appear overly strong, My old MBP’s MagSafe connector was held better (although I think the recess into the case helped with that a bit too). This holds well enough, and there is a nice blue LED in the end of it to tell me when it is connected. It doesn’t have the orange/green color change that the Apple cables had, but I assume that is lack of a signal back from the battery. The blue light is better than the standard Apple USB-C cable though which had no visual indication that it was connected and power was flowing.

Conclusion? Not as good as MagSafe, but definitely good enough and it restores my confidence that if one of the kids trips over my power cord, the expensive MBP won’t go flying onto the floor.

Upcycling Mac Minis (Part 1)

I have a couple of old Mac Mini systems, in mostly working condition. By old though, I mean 2006 and 2007 era. The older one has a single core 32 bit CPU clocking in at a blistering 1.83 GHz, and a whole gigabyte of RAM. All of that backed with a 60GB HDD. The 2007 is a little better, boasting a 64 bit dual core CPU clocked at 2 GHz, 2GB of RAM and a 1 TB HDD (it also has a defective optical drive, which is more of a problem than it ought to be – thanks Apple). Neither are going to set any records, and, of course, neither are supported by Apple any longer – the 2006 can run Mac OS 10.6 (aka Snow Leopard), and the 2007 gets up to 10.7 (aka Lion).

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AirPods: Buy Again?

I have had a set of Apple AirPods for over a year now, and used them heavily for conference calls, listening to podcasts and occasionally for music too. Having had them for a while though, and noticing that the battery life on them was dropping (especially the left one), I started wondering whether I would choose to replace them with AirPods again when they do finally fail.

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Mojave

Fujitsu S1500M

I’ll admit, I am typically slow to update to the new versions of Mac OS X, mostly out of fear of what peripherals I have that might stop working completely, or require me to jump through hoops to get working again. In the case of Mojave, the risk was my venerable Fujitsu document scanner, an S1500M, which I love and since it is still working perfectly I am loath to even consider replacing (even more so since I’ve been told that newer ScanSnap devices have a faulty license manager on the software that causes headaches at every update). Back to Mojave… I checked the interwebs for information, and on the Fujitsu site I found this statement:

ScanSnap S1500/S1500M does not support macOS Mojave. There are no plans for adding support in the future since the support for ScanSnap S1500/S1500M has already ended.

Fujitsu Global Support

Not promising, and right now we enter the craziness of tax season here in the US, the scanner gets more use than at any other time of the year.

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iPhone XS (and X) Accessories

I was disappointed by the selection of essential accessories in a recent ZDNet article, so I thought I’d compile my own list. While some of the items on their list are not bad suggestions, some are just awful suggestions. Here are my personal suggestions for accessories, based on what I have been using with my iPhone X for the last year, and continue to use with my iPhone XS now.

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MacBook Pro Crashing on Wake

Last week I let my mid-2012 13″ MacBook Pro apply the latest update for Mac OS High Sierra, version 10.13.4. That, it seems, was a mistake.

Ever since that day, when I close the lid and let it sleep for more than a few minutes, it will crash on wake up. The only errors I see in the system logs are regarding com.apple.preference.displays.MirrorDisplays not starting properly. Looking online for the error message [“com.apple.xpc.launchd [1] (com.apple.preference.displays.MirrorDisplays): Service only ran for 0 seconds. Pushing respawn out by 10 seconds.”], I found a number of places reporting that it has been happening to them in various releases of High Sierra. In all the cases I saw, the errors are in the logs and the computer fails to wake up from sleeping.

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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!