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.

Nokia N900 and iPhone headsets?

For a geek like me, the Nokia N900 is paradise on earth: It’s full Debian Linux in your bag. It has the best IM integration I have ever seen on any mobile device. It has the best VoIP (Skype, SIP) integration I have ever seen on any mobile device and it has one of the coolest multitasking implementations I’ve seen on any mobile device (the card-based task/application switching is fantastic).

Unfortunately, there’s one thing that prevents me from using it (or many other phones) to replace my iPhone: While the whole world agreed on one way to wire a microphone/headphone combination, Apple thought it wise to do it another way, which leads to Apple compatible headsets not working with the N900.

By not working I don’t just mean “no microphone” or even “no sound”. No. I mean “deafening buzzing on both the left and right channel and headset still not being recognized in the software”.

The problem is that I already own iPhone compatible headsets and that it’s way easier to get good iPhone compatible ones around here. I’m constantly listening to audio on my phone (Podcast, Audiobooks). Having to grab the phone out of my bag and unplugging the headphones whenever it rings is inacceptable to me, so I need to have a microphone with my headphones.

Just now though, I found a small adapter which promises to solve that problem, proving once again, that there’s nothing that’s not being sold on the internet.

I ordered one (thankfully one of the international shipping options was less than the adapter itself – something I’m not used to with the smaller stores), so we’ll see how that goes. If it means that I can use a N900 as my one and only device, I’ll be a very happy person indeed.

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
Advantages
  • 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.
Disadvantages
  • 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.

Things I can’t do with an iPhone/iPad

  • have a VoIP call going on when a mobile call/SMS arrives
  • read Kindle ebooks (I can now, but knowing Apple’s stance on “competing functionality”, with the advent of iBook, how long do you think this will last?)
  • give it to our customers as another device to use with PopScan (It’s not down-lockable and there’s no way for centralized app deployment that doesn’t go over apple)
  • plug any peripheral that isn’t apple sanctioned
  • plug a peripheral and use it system-wide
  • play a SNES ROM (or any other console rom)
  • install Adblock (which especially hurts on the iPad)
  • consistenly use IM (background notifications don’t work consistently)

The iPhone provides me with many advantages and thus I can live with its inherent restrictions (which are completely arbitrary – there’s no technical reason for them), but I see no point to buy yet another locked-down device that does half of the stuff I’d want it to do and does it half-assed at that.

Also it’s a shame that Apple obviously doesn’t need any corporate customers (at least for a small company, I see no possibility).

I just hope, the open and usable Mac computer remains. I would not know what to go back to? Windows? Never. Linux? Sure. But on what hardware?

Alt-Space

Today, I was looking into the new jnlp_href way of launching a Java Applet. Just like applet-launcher, this allows one to create applets that depend on native libraries without the usual hassle of manually downloading the files and installing them.

Contrary to applet-launcher, it’s built into the later versions of Java 1.6 and it’s officially supported, so I have higher hopes concerning its robustness.

It’s even possible to keep the applet-launcher calls in there if the user has an older Java Plugin that doesn’t support jnlp_href yet.

So in the end, you just write a .jnlp file describing your applet and add

<param name="jnlp_href" value="http://www.example.com/path/to/your/file.jnlp">

and be done with it.

Unless of course, your JNLP file has a syntax error. Then you’ll get this in your error console (at least in case of this specific syntax error):

java.lang.NullPointerException
    at sun.plugin2.applet.Plugin2Manager.findAppletJDKLevel(Unknown Source)
    at sun.plugin2.applet.Plugin2Manager.createApplet(Unknown Source)
    at sun.plugin2.applet.Plugin2Manager$AppletExecutionRunnable.run(Unknown Source)
    at java.lang.Thread.run(Unknown Source)
Ausnahme: java.lang.NullPointerException

How helpful is that?

Thanks, by the way, for insisting to display a half-assed German translation on my otherwise english OS: Never use locale info for determining the UI langauge, please.

Of course, this error does not give any indication of what the problem could be.

And even worse: The error in question is the topic of this blog post: It’s the dreaded Alt-Space character, 0xa0, or NBSP in ISO 8859-1.

0xa0 looks like a space, feels like a space, is incredibly easy to type instead of a space, but it’s not a space – not in the least. Depending on your compiler/parser, this will blow up in various ways:

pilif@celes ~ % ls | grep gnegg
zsh: command not found:  grep
pilif@celes ~ %
pilif@celes ~ % cat test.php
<?
echo "gnegg";
?>
pilif@celes ~ % php test.php
PHP Parse error:  syntax error, unexpected T_CONSTANT_ENCAPSED_STRING in /Users/pilif/test.php on line 2

Parse error: syntax error, unexpected T_CONSTANT_ENCAPSED_STRING in /Users/pilif/test.php on line 2
pilif@celes ~ %

and so on.

Now you people in the US with US keyboard layouts might think that I’m just one of those whiners – after all, how stupid must one be to press Alt-Space all the time? Probably stupid enough to deserve stuff like this.

Before you think these nasty thoughts, I ask you to consider the Swiss German keyboard layout though: Nearly all the characters use programmers use are accessed by pressing Alt-[some letter]. At least on the Mac. Windows uses AltGr, or right-alt, but on the mac, any alt will do.

So when you look at the shell line above:

ls | grep gnegg

you’ll see how easy it is to hit alt-space: First I type ls, then space. Then I press and hold alt-7 for the pipe and then, I am supposed to let go of alt and hit space. But because my left hand is on alt and the right one is pressing space, it’s very easy to hit space before letting go of alt.

Now instead of getting immediate feedback, nothing happens. It looks as if the space had been added, when in fact, something else has been added and that something is not recognized as a white space character and thus is something completely different from a space – despite looking exactly the same.

As much fun as reading hexdump -C output is – I need this to stop.

Dear internet! How can I make my Mac (or Linux when using the Mac keyboard layout) stop recognizing Alt-Space?

To take air out of the eventually arriving troll’s sails:

  • I won’t use Windows again. Thank you. Neither do I want to use Linux on my desktop.
  • I cannot use the US keybindings because my brain just can’t handle the keyboard layout changing all the time and as I’m a native German speaker, I do have to type umlauts here and then – actually often enough, so that the ¨+vocal combo isn’t acceptable.
  • While running Mac OS X, I’m stuck with the mac keyboard layout – I can’t use the Windows one.

Above JNLP error (printed here just in case somebody else has the same issue) caused me to lose nearly 5 hours of my life and will force me to work this weekend – who’d expect a XML parser error due to a space that isn’t one when seeing above call stack?

Update: A commenter on reddit.com has recommended to use Ukelele which I did and it helped me to create a custom keyboard layout that makes alt-space work like just space. That’s the best solution for my specific taste, so thanks a lot!

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??