Apple Watch starting to be useful

Even after the Time for Coffee app has been updated for WatchOS 2.0 support last year and my Apple Watch has become significantly more useful, the fact that the complication didn’t get a chance to update very often and the fact that launching the app took an eternity kind of detracted from the experience.

Which lead to me not really using the watch most of the time. I’m not a watch person. Never was. And while the temptation of playing with a new gadget lead to me wearing it on and off, I was still waiting for the killer feature to come around.

This summer, this has changed a lot.

I’m in the developer program, so I’m running this summer’s beta versions and Apple has also launched Apple Pay here in Switzerland.

So suddenly, by wearing the watch, I get access to a lot of very nice features that present themselves as huge user experience improvements:

  • While «Time for Coffee»’s complication currently is flaky at best, I can easily attribute this to WatchOSes current Beta state. But that doesn’t matter anyways, because the Watch now keeps apps running, so whenever I need public transport departure information and when the complication is flaky, I can just launch the app which now comes up instantly and loads the information within less than a second.
  • Speaking of leaving apps running: The watch can now be configured to revert to the clock face only after more than 8 minutes have passed since the last use. This is perfect for the Bring shopping list app which now suddenly is useful. No more taking the phone out while shopping.
  • Auto-Unlocking the Mac by the presence of an unlocked and worn watch has gone from not working at all, to working rarely, to working most of the time as the beta releases have progressed (and since Beta 4 we also got the explanation that WiFi needs to be enabled on the to-be-unlocked mac, so now it works on all machines). This is very convenient.
  • While most of the banks here in Switzerland boycott Apple Pay (a topic for another blog entry – both the banks and Apple are in the wrong), I did get a Cornèrcard which does work with Apple Pay. Being able to pay contactless with the watch even for amounts larger than CHF 50 (which is the limit for passive cards) is amazing.

Between all these features, I think there’s finally enough justification for me to actually wear the watch. It still happens that I forget to put it on here and then, but overall, this has totally put new life into this gadget, to the point where I’m inclined to say that it’s a totally new and actually very good experience now.

If you were on the fence before, give it a try come next autumn. It’s really great now.

the new (2013) MacPro

Like many others, I couldn’t wait for Apple to finally upgrade their MacPro and like many others, when they could finally be ordered, I queued up to get mine.

Last Monday, after two months of wait, the package finally arrived and I could start playing with it. I have to say: The thing is very impressive.

The hardware itself is very lightweight and compact. Compared to the old aluminium MacPro it was replacing, it felt even smaller than it is. Also, the box is nearly silent – so silent in fact, that now the hum of the dimmed background light in my old 30” Cinema Display is louder than the machine itself.

Speaking of that 30” display: It’s using a dual-link DVI port. That means a special adapter is required to connect it to the new Thunderbolt ports – at least if you want to use a higher resolution than 1280×800 (which you definitely do).

The adapter is kinda difficult to get, especially as I totally forgot about it and I reall wanted to migrate to the new machine, so I had to look through local retail (only the one from Apple even remotely available) as opposed to Amazon (three other models available, some cheaper).

The device is huge by the way. I’m sure there’s some electronics in there (especially when you consider that you have to plug it into a USB port for power), probably to split the full 2560×1600 pixels sent over Thunderbolt into two images of 1280×800, only to be reassembled in the display I guess.

The fact that there obviously is processing going on leaves a bit of a bad taste as it’s one more component that could now break and, of course, there might be display lag or quality degradation.

At some time, there was for sure, if the adapters reviews are to be believed, but so far, I wasn’t able to notice bad quality nor lag, but the fact that now there’s one more active component involved in bringing me a picture makes me just a tad bit nervous.

Anyways – let’s talk about some more pleasant things.

One is the WiFi: With the old MacPro I had peak transfer of about 3 MBytes/s which was just barely good enough for me to not wanting to go through the trouble of laying cable, even though it really pissed me off at times.

On the new Pro, I reached 18 MBytes/s over the exact same WiFi yesterday which removes any need for ever considering installing a physial cable. Very handy. Remember: It’s not a file server, it doesn’t run a torrent client, it doesn’t serve movies to my home network. The really large bulk transfers it does are mainly caused by Steam which clearly is the bottleneck here (it never manages to saturate my 150MBit/s downstream).

Another thing that really surprises me is the sleeping behavior of the box. Well, actually, the waking up behavior: When asleep, the thing wakes up instantly (less than a second) – never in my live have I seen such a quick waking up from sleep in a computer.

Yes. I’m waiting for the fan to spin down and all audible noise to go away, but still. Hit any key on the keyboard and the machine’s back. We’re talking “waking an iphone from sleep” speeds here.

It might be that the machine has multiple levels of sleep states, but the instant wake-up also happens after sleeping for over 12 hours at which point a deeper sleep would totally make sense if there was any.

What is strange though: I seem to be able to wake the machine by pinging it. Yes. I know about the bonjour proxy, but in this case, I’m pinging it directly by IP and it wakes up (the first ping has a roundtrip time for 500ish ms – yes. it wakes THAT quickly).

This leads me to believe that the machine might not actually be sleeping for real though because waking from a direct ping requires quite a bit more technology than waking from a WOL packet.

Somdeday, I’ll play with tcpdump to learn what’s going on here.

Performance-wise, I haven’t done that much testing, but replaying a test Postgres database dump that takes 5ish minutes on a 2012 retina MacBook Pro completes in 1:12 minutes on the pro – pretty impressive.

And one last thing: When you get a machine as powerful as this, there’s of course also the wish of playing a game or two on it. As I had one SSD dedicated to Bootcamp in the old Pro, I was curious whether I might be able to keep this setup: The built-in flash drive dedicated to MacOS and Windows on its own (the old one) dedicated SSD.

Now that we don’t have internal drive bays any more, this might seem tricky, but yesterday, I managed to install Windows 8 nicely on that SSD after connecting it via Thunderbolt using this adapter (no affiliate code – I got the link straight from google).

I guess the fact that it’s using Thunderbolt makes Windows think it’s a built-in hard drive which is what makes this work: You’re not allowed to install Windows on a portable drive due to licensing issues.

The adapter is not actually intended for use with arbitrary drives (it’s an accessory to some Seagate portable drives), but it works totally well and is (physically) stable enough. I’ll have to do a bit of benchmarking to see how much performance I lose compared to the old built-in solution, but it certainly doesn’t feel any slower.

Overall, I’m really happy with my new toy. Yes, it’s probably overpowered for my needs, but it’s also cool has hell, it is the first MacPro I own where sleep works reliably (though I’m inclined to say that it works suspiciously well – it might be cheating) and the fact that bootcamp still works with a dedicated external drive makes me really happy too.

Sticking to the iPhone

Recently, I got a chance to play around with a Nexus One phone and I was using it as my main phone with the intent to use it as my new main phone. I had enough of the lack of background apps and the closedness of the iPhone, so I thought, I should really go through with this.

Unfortunately though, this didn’t work out so well.

People who haven’t tried both devices would probably never understand this, but the Nexus One touch screen is really, really bad. The bit of squigglyness you see on the picture in the linked article seems like no big deal, but after one week of Nexus One and then going back to the iPhone, you can’t imagine how smooth it feels to use the iPhone again.

It’s like being in a very noisy environment and then stepping back into a quiet one.

Why did I try the iPhone again?

While I got Podcast listening to work correctly on the Android phone, I noticed that a lot of my commuting time is not just spent by listening to podcasts, but that some games (currently Doodle Jump and Plants vs. Zombies) play a huge role too and the supply of games on the Android plattform is really, really bad.

And don’t get me started on the keyboard: Neither the built-in one nor the one I had switched to even comes close to what the iPhone provides. I’m about 5 times as fast on the iPhone than on the Android. Worse: After switching to the Nexus One, I again began dreading having to write SMSes which usually spells death to any phone for me.

Speaking of keyboard: The built-in one is completely unusable for multilingual people: The text I write on a phone is about 50% english and 50% german. The Android keyboard doesn’t allow switching the language on the fly (while the english and german keyboards are quite alike, the keyboard language also determines the auto correction language), and it couples the keyboard language to the phone UI language.

This is really bad, as over the years I bacame so accustomed to english UIs that I frankly cannot work with german UIs any more – also because of the usually really bad translations. Eek.

So, let’s tally.

iPhone Android Device
  • Working touch screen
  • Smoother graphics and thus more fluent usage.
  • Never crashes
  • Apps I learned to depend on are available (Wemlin, Doodle Jump […])
  • No background noise in the headphones
  • Background-Applications (I wanted this for working IM as the notification based solutions on the iPhone never seemed to work)
  • Built-in applications can be replaced at will
  • Ability to buzz pictures (yeah. I know. Who needs this?)
  • On-the-fly podcast download.
  • Can’t replace internal apps by better ones
  • Needs iTunes to download podcasts
  • No background apps
  • No buzzing of pictures (at least not if you want a location attached to your buzz)
  • Really bad touch screen (jumpy, inaccurate, sometimes losing calibration until I reboot it)
  • Very mediocre applications available
  • UI sometimes slow
  • Very bad battery life (doesn’t make it through one day even when not heavily used)
  • Crashes about once a day
  • Did I already write “really bad touch screen” – I guess I did, but: “really bad touch screen”
  • Sometimes really bad, sometimes just bad background noise in the headphones. According to HTC, this can be fixed by periodically turning off the phone and removing the battery(!).
  • No audible support (I know I could probably remove the DRM, but why bother at the moment?)

While I thought I could live with the touch screen, the moment I turned on the iPhone again to play a round of “Plants vs. Zombies” that just came out for the i-Devices, I’ve seen how a touch screen is supposed to work and I could not bring myself around to going back, but I still wanted some of the one big iPhone disadvantage, which is lack of non-SMS-based messaging fixed for me, so here’s what I’ve done:

  • WhatsApp on the iPhone works really well as an SMS replacement (something I was after for a very long time)
  • meebo so far never disconnected me on the iPhone which is something all other iPhone IM clients have done for me – and even on the android, meebo tended to disconnect and not reconnect.

For me, that’s it. No more experiments. What ever I tried to get away from Apple’s dictate, it always failed. The N900 is a geeks heaven but doesn’t support my expensive in-ear iPhone headset and doesn’t provide any halfway interesting games. Android has a bad touchscreen, next to no battery life, is slow and crashy.

It’s really hard to admit for me as a geek and strong believer in freedom to use something I bought for whatever purpose I want to use it for, but Apple, even after two years, still rules the phone market in usability and hardware build quality.

Can’t wait to see what the next iteration of the iPhone will be, though they don’t have to change anything as long as their competition still thinks it’s ok to save $2 on each phone by using a crappy touchscreen and a crappy battery.

Of all the hardware that can break…

… it has to be the one that’s most difficult to replace.

Today, my Gefen HDMI over Cat5 adapter died. Well. It didn’t die completely, it just lost its ability to produce a stable image. What is transmitted is very intermittent and in the few seconds the image is available, it’s heavily distorted.

Also, it’s not the obvious issue (faulty cabling) as the problems did not go away after using two very short (1m) cat 5 cables to test.

Now this is really bad for a variety of reasons:

  • Only just last Saturday I bought Star Ocean and Tales of Vesperia for my 360, giving me a total play time of 1.5 hours so far.
  • Yesterday I noticed that Worms: Armageddon was released for Xbox arcade and I have already invited Ebi after the huge success that was our earlier Worms evening on the 360.
  • My setup is totally dependent on the two extenders as I am covering more than 20 meters of distance between receiver and projector. No extender, no Xbox, no Wii, no projector.
  • Last time I waited around six weeks for the extender to arrive

Of all the hardware I’m having at home, the HDMI extender is the worst to break. Not only is it very hard to replace (see above), it’s so deeply integrated into my home cinema setup that just debugging what was going on took a ladder, a screwdriver, a hex-wrench and unwinding an ungodly heap of cables.

All of that in an apartment whose temperature is currently at 30°C (86 °F) and with a hell of a headache.

I’d take anything else going down. Anything but that Gefen extender. My XBox? Sure. Shion? It’d suck, but sure if it has to be, go ahead. My reciever? That would hurt as it was very expensive, but at least it’s easily replaced.

Why did it have to be that Gefen extender? Why??

iPhone works for me

A year ago, I was comparing mobile phones, I bought a Touch Diamond and regretted it and then I bought an iPhone 3G which I used for a year and now I even upgraded to the 3GS. Now that I just got yet another comment to my post about the Touch Diamond, I thought I should recycle that comparison table from a year ago, but this time I’ll compare my assumptions about the iPhone back then with how it actually turned out.

So, here’s the table:

assumed actually
Phone usage
Quick dialing of arbitrary numbers actually, using the favorites list, and even using the touch keypad with its very large buttons, I never had a problem dialing a number.
Acceptable battery life (more than two days) ? meh – two to three days, but as I’m syncing podcasts every day, I get to charge the phone every day as well, so this doesn’t matter as much
usable as modem probably not it is now (using a little help for my Swisscom contract). As I was bound to my old contract with sunrise until may, I would have been able to use my old phone in an emergency, but that thankfully didn’t happen.
usable while not looking at the device I got really dependent upon the small button on my headset plus the volume hardware buttons on the side of the device, both allowing me to do 90% of the stuff I was able to do on the old phone without looking at it.
quick writing of SMS messages actually, I’m nearly as fast as with the T9 – having all keys at my disposal eliminates the need to select the right word in the menus, but not having the physical keys lets me wrestle with typos or auto correction which removes a bit of the advantage. It’s not nearly as bad as I have imagined though.
Sending and receiving of MMS messages works now. I missed the feature about once or twice in the 2.0 days, but usually sending a picture via email worked just as well (and was cheaper).
PIM usage
synchronizes with google calendar/contacts maybe yes. Since the beginning of the year, this works really well because Google just pretends to be Exchange
synchronizes with Outlook maybe yes, directly via ActiveSync – but since February, our company went the Google Apps route, so this has become irrelevant.
usable calendar yes yes
usable todo list
media player usage
integrates into current iTunes based podcast workflow yes yes
straight forward audio playing interface yes yes (see my note about the button on the headset above)
straight forward video playing interface actually, the interface is perfectly fine
acceptable video player limited kinda yes. Using my 8 core Mac Pro, it’s quick and easy to convert a video, but lately I’m using my home cinema equipment for the real movies/tv series and the iPhone for video podcasts which already come in the native format. Still, it’s no generic video player capable of playing video in the most common formats and it doesn’t really support playing from any server in my home network.
ssh client maybe yes. TouchTerm works very well – much better than any of the mobile Putty variants (Symbian an Winmob)
skype client maybe note quite. Actually usable with the speakerphone or headset, but not as useful in general use due to the inability to run in the background
OperaMini (browser usable on GSM) not needed any more due to UMTS and near-flat rates.
WLAN-Browser yes yes

Nearly all my gripes about the iPhone have either become irrelevant or turned out not to be a problem after all.

Combine the very acceptable performance as a phone with the perfect performance as a podcast player, music player, acceptable gaming platform and perfect mobile internet device, then it becomes clear that the iPhone has become the perfect phone for me.

I upgraded to the 3GS mainly because of the larger capacity, but now that I have it, the speed improvement actually matters much more than the capacity increase as 32 GB still is not enough to fit all my audio books, so I’m still limited to all my music, all unlistened podcasts and a selection of audio books.

But the speed improvement from the 3G to the 3GS is so incredible, that I’m still very happy I made the purchase. All the other features are either not quite ready for prime time (voice control) or not really interesting to me (video recording, compass).

Still. After looking for the perfect phone for 8 years now, I finally found the hardware in the iPhone.

No more hard drives for me!

Last week I noticed that the hardware store of my choice had these fancy new (and fast) Intel SSDs in stock – reason enough for me to go ahead and buy two to try them out in my two MacPro desktop machines. Kos-Mos, my home mac was the first to be converted.

But before that, there was this hardware problem to overcome. See: The SSDs are 2.5 inch drives whereas the MacPro has 3.5 inch slots. While the connectors (SATA) are compatible, the smaller form factor of the Intel drives prevents the usual drive sliders of the MacPro from working.

The solution was to buy one of these adapters for the SSDs. Before doing that, I read about other solutions, some of them involving duct tape, but this felt like it was the cleanest way and it was: The kits fit perfectly, so installing the drive was a real piece of cake.

The next problem was about logistics:

pilif@kosmos /Volumes/Macintosh HD
 % df -h | grep Macintosh
/dev/disk2s2   365Gi  319Gi   46Gi    88%    /Volumes/Macintosh HD

Whereas the largest Intel SSD available to date has just 160GB of capacity (149 “really usable”), so at least some kind of reorganization had to be done.

Seeing that the installation running on the traditional drive was ages old anyways (dating back to the last quarter of 2006), I decided that the sanest way to proceed was to just install another copy of Leopard to the new drive and use that as the boot device, coping over the applications and parts of the user profile I really needed.

Been there, done that.

I didn’t do any real benchmark, but boot-time is now sub 10 seconds. Eclipse starts up in sub 5 seconds. The installation of all the updates since the pristine 10.5.1 that was on the DVDs that came with the machine took less than three minutes – including the reboots (I’ve installed the 10.5.7 update this morning and it took around 10 minutes on the same machine).

And to make things even better: The machine is significantly quieter than before – at least once the old hard drive powers down.

I will never, ever, again use non-SSD drives in any machine I’m working at from now on.

The perceived speedup was as significant as going from 8MB or RAM to 32MB back in the days. The machine basically feels like a new computer.

Of course I ran into one really bad issue:

The idea was to symlink  ~/Music to my old drive because my iTunes Library (mostly due to Podcasts and audio books) was too large to conveniently copy to the SSD. I renamed ~/Music to ~/Music.old, created the symlink and started iTunes for the first time, only to get screwed with an empty library.

According to the preferences though, iTunes did correctly follow the symlink and was pointing to the right path (WTF?). I tried to manually re-add the library folder which did kind of work, but screwed over all my podcasts – completely.

This is where I noticed that somehow iTunes still found ~/Music.old and used that one. A quick ps turned out my best friend, the iTunes helper was running, so I shut that one down and moved ~/Music.old away to /, just to be sure.

Restarted iTunes just to run into the very same problems again (now, this is a serious WTF).

The only way to get this to work was to quit iTunes (that includes killing the helper) and to completely remove all traces of that Music folder.

Now iTunes is finally using the Music folder on my traditional hard drive. This kind of work should not be needed and I seriously wonder what kind of magic was going on behind the scenes there – after killing the helper and renaming the folder, it should not have used it any more.

Still: SSDs are fun. And I would never again want to miss the kind of speed I’m now enjoying.

celes in the office is next :-)

Managed switch

Yesterday I’ve talked about configuring a VLAN in my home network.

VLAN is a technology using some bits in Ethernet frames to create virtual network segments on the same physical network, but just go ahead and read the linked Wikipedia article as it’s more detailed than what I would want to go into.

To really make use of VLANs, you are going to need at least one managed switch (two in my case). I knew this and I was looking around for something useful.

In the end, I ended up with two HP ProCurve 1800-8G’s: I wanted something that has at least 8 ports and was Gigabit capable as I was feeling the bandwidth cap on the previous 100M connection between shion and my media center when streaming 1080p content.

That’s something I hope to solve with the 1G connection, though the drobo may still be the limiting factor here, but theoretical 480Mbit is better (where are the MacMinis with the Firewire800 interface?) than the 100MBit I was constrained to with the old setup.

The ProCurves are fanless, provide 8 ports and have a really nice web interface which is very easy to use and works on all browsers (as opposed to some linksys things which only work with IE6 (not even IE7 does the trick)). Also, the interface is very responsive and it even comes with an excellent online help.

With only 10 minutes of thought going into the setup and another 5 minutes to configure the two switches I was ready to hook them up and got instant satisfaction: In my server-room I plugged a test machine to any of the ports 2-7 and got onto VLAN1 (the internal network). Then I plugged it into port 8 and promptly was on VLAN2 (as evidenced by the public IP I got).

I have only three minor issues with the configuration of the two switches so far:

  1. They come with an empty administration password by default and don’t force you to change it. Now granted, on a switch you cannot do as many mischief as on a router or worse, a NAS or access point, but it’s still not a good thing.
  2. They come preconfigured with the address and DHCP disabled, practically forcing you to configure them locally before plugging them. I would have hoped for either DHCP enabled or, even better, the possibility of configuring them using RARP. Or they could provide a serial interface which they do not.
  3. To reset them, you have to unplug them, connect port 1 with port 2 and restart them. While this prevents you from accidentally resetting them, the procedure is a pain to do and when the time comes that I will have to do this, I’ll probably have forgotten the procedure.

But these are minor issues. The quick web interface, the excellent online help and the small fanless design make this the optimal switch once you have advanced requirements to fulfill despite not needing more than 8 ports.

There’s a larger 24 port cousin of the 1800-8G, but that one has a fan, so it was no option in my case – especially not in the sideboard where I’m now at the end of the 8 port capacity.