Archive for category Technical

Pebble on the Wrist

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Kickstarter Edition!

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It would be nice if this view could be customized; perhaps a future update will enable that.

Back in April, I jumped on the opportunity to acquire Dave2‘s Pebble watch, Kickstarter Edition, at a bargain price. Shortly thereafter, the firmware was updated with several significant fixes and the expected addition of support for displaying running data from various iOS apps.

For me, displaying the run data completes the replacement of my GPS watch with my iPhone. I had already made the switch and adjusted to no longer being able to glance at my wrist for current data; it’s very nice to have that back.

Over the months I’ve had the Pebble, I’ve experimented with a number of watch faces, including a couple that pulled HTTP data via an extra iOS app. While those were nice, they drained the Pebble’s battery much too fast for my liking. I also suspect the app caused significant additional drain of my iPhone’s battery. One of the more entertaining watch faces I tried was Gallifrey Time by SzDom. I’m currently using Bigger Time by Gorges, which is by far my favorite.

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“Gallifrey Time” – I had a fun time with this one for a while; only took a short time to learn to read it.

The best feature of the Pebble, naturally, is its raison d’être: notifications. The fully supported notifications (on iOS) are Phone, Messages and, mostly, Mail. The caveat for Mail is that use of Mail’s VIP feature disables Pebble notifications (unless that’s been fixed since I last checked on it). The Phone notifications aren’t particularly useful for me, as I almost certainly want to pull out my phone to deal with the call in one way or another. Rarely, I just want to ignore the call, which I can do from the Pebble. In theory, that is. For some reason, call notifications aren’t going to my Pebble at this moment for me to verify, though the “Missed Call” notification does come through.

Despite this limitation on supported apps for notifications, it turns out that getting other apps to work reliably is possible, if inconvenient. After the Pebble and iPhone are paired, you can go into the iPhone’s Settings->Notifications and, for each app that you want to have Pebble notifications, select it and toggle the “View in Lock Screen” setting off and then back on (it must be on). From that point forward, as long as the Pebble connection persists, notifications from those apps while show up on the Pebble. For some apps, I like to disable the iOS Sounds notification and rely on the Pebble.

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“Bigger Watch” by Gorges

This is all well and good, and worth the minor inconvenience, except for one thing: the BlueTooth connection between the Pebble and the iPhone is fragile. I don’t know all of the triggers, but large spatial separation between the devices is certainly one of them. Once this happens, it is highly likely that the notification work-arounds will need to be re-done. Worse, I’ve had the connection drop without recovering on its own, necessitating a launch of the the Pebble app on the iPhone to see that they are not connected and to reconnect them semi-manually (starting the manual process seems to trigger the automatic one).

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Getting vibration reminders on my wrist makes me more likely to take action.

For the most part, I’m quite happy with my Pebble. I admit, however, that some of this is with forward-looking optimism that leaves me expecting better reliability in the future. There’s some reason to think that iOS 7 will improve the connectivity, and future firmware updates from Pebble could possibly help as well.

Oh, one more thing, I think I get 5-7 days on a charge of the Pebble. I wish it gave a better warning that the battery is low. The indicator isn’t visible on the watch face, only in other views. If I see the indicator in the morning, the watch will usually last until that night, though I have had it die in the early evening. I could just charge it every night — I wish I weren’t paranoid about charging patterns affecting rechargeable battery life.

 

 

 

 

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Mailbox App

mb_iconA few weeks ago, possibly longer, I signed up for the waiting list for the then not yet released Mailbox service. Last Saturday, my wait ended and I was able to start using the service via the Mailbox iPhone app (the only interface thus far).

So, what is it? Primarily, it offers functionality that I’ve been wanting for almost as long as I’ve had email. Or, at least, it seems that I have. Specifically, it allows me to defer any email until a later time I choose, which hides the email from my inbox until that time.

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Deferral Options

The interface is very nice with a quick swipe to the left on the email (or clicking the clock icon when viewing the email) bringing up the dialog above. These options are configurable in settings, either explicitly for “Later Today” and “Someday”, or implicitly for the others by defining start and end times for days. “Pick Date” also allows for picking the time that you want the email to come back.

I should note that Mailbox only works with Gmail. As I mentioned, the iPhone app is currently the only interface available, though you can continue to use any other interface to your Gmail, just without the ability to defer emails. You can still view the deferred emails via the [Mailbox]/Later label, and they will still return to the inbox as scheduled since this is handled on the server side (I believe). In fact, you actually can defer emails without the Mailbox app, but only for “Someday”, by simply moving them to the [Mailbox]/Later label.

An important caveat, though not a show-stopper for me, is that Mailbox currently does not provide any support for generic Gmail labels. You can create Mailbox-specific labels under the [Mailbox] label, but that’s it. Theoretically, you could move any existing Gmail labels into the [Mailbox] label, but I’m not doing that at this point. Mailbox does let you view and search All Mail, though it doesn’t seem to work well for non-recent email. For now, I still use the Gmail app for searching old email.

When you have archived or deferred all of the mail in your inbox, Mailbox rewards you:

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Tapping the image reveals the full version

The image changes every day.

This has been working so well for me that I’m tempted to move my normal ToDo items into my email and just let this manage them. I’m not, yet, due to lack of an easy method for handling repeating items, which is what almost all of my ToDo items are.

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Home Screen

homescreen

For no reason in particular, I’ve decided to post a short overview of the apps on my iPhone’s home screen. As you can see in the image, I also have six folders on my home screen; I’m not going to go into detail on those. I’m also not going to detail the other two pages, though I will volunteer that the second page contains less-frequently used apps and the third is all games (none of which do I play with any regularity at all).

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Flashlight’s portrait clock

Flashlight – This is an oldie that I had long ago stopped using, but I’ve since rediscovered it as the best bedside clock I’ve found.

FitnessFolder

Occasions – By far the best birthday tracking app I’ve found. Bonus feature is that it allows curated syncing of contacts from Facebook (as opposed to the all-or-nothing version offered by the official app).

Reminders – I’m still not completely sold on Apple’s app, but its superior integration with both Siri and the Notification drop-down keep me using it for now. I also use Toodledo for tasks that I want to repeat based on completion date (it’s on my 2nd screen).

Music – For a long time, I relied on the Music app usually being accessible from the player controls in the multi-tasking panel, but this fell apart when Podcasts were split into their own app. Now, it’s much more likely that the wrong app is active. If I were a more regular user of something like Pandora, this would’ve already been a problem.

Podcasts – I’m pretty happy with this app after Apple’s last few updates. In fact, the only real problem I have is the issue described in the previous entry, along with the fact that the Music app is still the real default. This means that very often when I get in the car I have to manually restart the podcast that was playing earlier.

FinanceFolder

ShopFolder

Movies/TVFolder

Camera+ – There are so many reasons to use this over the built-in camera that it deserves its own post. Simultaneous sharing to Twitter, Facebook and Flickr is probably the key feature for me, but others are nice as well.

Google Maps – I’m a big fan of Waze, and for a long time that held this spot. But I’ve concluded that Google Maps is just better. Sure, I miss the social aspect of Waze a bit — in particular, the possibility that someone marked an upcoming hazard with a description of what lane to avoid — but it wasn’t enough. I still reach to mark items occasionally, before remembering that I no longer can.

UtilitiesFolder

Phone – It is a phone, after all.

Photos – I do like showing off my pictures, though I’m much more likely to do so with my iPad.

Safari – I’ve toyed with using Google as my browser, but I appreciate the iCloud support in Safari. Plus, I know Javascript is faster in Safari than anything else on the iPhone, even if I may never notice the difference.

Week Cal – I’ve tried lots and lots of calendar apps and, for me, this is head and shoulders above any of them. This is another one that deserves its own post. A couple of my oft-used features are templates and copying events. Multi-select is also very nice.

NOOK – This spot changes to whichever reader has the book I’m currently reading. At the moment, I’m reading Magyk (Septimus Heap Series #1) which I think was free when I first installed the app. When I finish it, I’ll likely delete the app as I don’t think I have any other books exclusively there.

Gmail – Direct access to searching all my mail is the killer feature here. It also looks nice. That being said, the iPad app is much worse and I still use Apple’s app primarily there. I am on the waiting list for Mailbox (182,886 and falling!), so that may change. I used Sparrow for a while, but gave up on it for reasons I don’t recall.

Social/NewsFolder

Settings – Previously, my most often use of Settings was to adjust brightness. However, I’ve found with the iPhone 5 on iOS 6, the auto brightness works much better than it used to, so I rarely need to adjust it. On the other hand, my cellular connection seems to go wonky every so often, and I’ve found that turning LTE off and on (and/or Cellular Data) usually resolves the issue. Having just written this, though, I’ve decided to swap it to the 2nd page, replacing it with DataMan, which tracks my cellular data usage in real time.

That completes the first page, leaving the privileged four apps that get to be on every page. In the past, I favored apps that I wanted to be sure and notice notification bubbles. However, I’ve since changed my habits such that I’m almost always on the home screen (if not in an app), so that need no longer exists. Now, it’s just my most launched apps.

Messages – Probably my most frequent method of remote personal communication.

MoneyWell – Great for on-the-go tracking of spending, but requires the desktop version to actually work. If you are a fan of envelope-budgeting, this (the desktop version, that is) is the best implementation of it I’ve found on any platform.

Tweetbot – I’ve used lots of Twitter apps, and while there are some features I miss from some of them, Tweetbot tops them all in many ways. I’d say the killer feature for me is being able to Mute via regular expressions. My most-missed feature is being able to optionally post any update to Facebook (in addition to or instead of Twitter).

Foursquare – I’m not sure what to say here as you either get it or you don’t. I certainly preferred Gowalla before they broke it and then killed it, but either way, I’m a fan of the concept.

And there you have it!

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iTunes Match

Two nights ago, I finally decided to take the plunge and give iTunes Match a try.20130124-171511.jpg

I’ve held off for this long mostly because it didn’t seem to offer much value to me. I’m not much of an audiophile, so the upgrade to 256-bit wasn’t very tempting. My iOS devices have plenty of memory and my music library isn’t all that large, so having my music in the cloud hasn’t been compelling.

The features that ended up luring me were cloud-syncing of playlists, star ratings and newly ripped CDs. The feature that *should* have been compelling but that I hadn’t even considered was syncing between multiple computers. Pre-iTunes Match, syncing new music between my iMac and my MBP has been fairly easy via Home Sharing. (Music not bought via iTunes that is — iTunes purchases were automatically downloaded.) Syncing meta data changes, on the other hand, was nigh impossible. Finally, syncing to my computer at work — on which I just installed iTunes today — is what really makes it all worthwhile.

So, how did my iTunes Match migration go?

Pretty well, I’d say, mostly because I was prepared.

I did quite a bit of research ahead of time so that I wouldn’t be surprised. This is key as there are certainly things about the process that might be very disconcerting if they were unexpected. In particular, it seems that a lot of people expect that after a track is matched it will have its meta data normalized with the iTunes Store data. That is not the case. I can understand that many people may not want their custom metadata overwritten, but it seems like there should be some method of updating to Apple’s curated data.

Years ago, I ripped a bunch of CDs in Linux and ended up with track_names_like_this, often including the album and/or artist in the name of the track. I’ve cleaned up most of these in the intervening years, but had a handful of CDs, mostly my wife’s, that still have this. I was concerned that this might affect matching, though I don’t think that’s actually true. Even so, I preferred to clean this up beforehand. I manually fixed one or two CD’s worth and then decided to simply re-rip the rest. In the end, I’m not sure if this was the best decision. I ended up editing the names of many of the re-ripped tracks anyway as iTunes added prefixes that I didn’t like to those tracks.

Also worth noting, I had recently verified that all of my tracks had album artwork.

With my preparations done, I took the plunge. Of 2546 tracks, 347 (14%) were purchased from iTunes and thus already in the cloud and 1855 (73%) were successfully matched. Combined, that’s a bit over 86% success. All of the remaining 344 were uploaded, so arguably that’s 100% success, depending on how you measure success. Of those 344, 143 are Beatles songs, most of which are from the Mono box set that is not available in iTunes. I wouldn’t have wanted these to match the stereo versions, so that’s fine. Another 34 are from narrow distribution albums that I’m not surprised are not available in the iTunes store. Also, 4 tracks are custom recordings and 1 is a 4-second CD intro.

I looked through the final 162 tracks and nothing really jumped out at me. I know I have some songs that were acquired from a select-your-tracks CD burner vending machine, but I don’t recall which songs those were. Counting only these 162 as “maybe should have matched”, gives a 6.4% match failure rate. Not bad.

Living with iTunes Match

20130124-171822.jpgHaving fully populated iCloud with my music, the next step was to enable it on my iOS devices. Also, I knew I was going to need some new playlists as my previous go-to playlists are not supported by iTunes Match. Specifically, smart playlists that reference other playlists don’t work. While iTunes was processing my library, I worked on creating new playlists and I’m actually happier with my new playlists than my old ones.

With tracks and new playlists in iCloud and devices synced with “all music” to have all of the newest metadata (and re-ripped tracks) pre-loaded to avoid needless download, I flipped the switch on my iPhone to enable iTunes Match. As expected, my list playlists changed but my tracks were available. What I hadn’t expected was that most of my album artwork vanished. Worse, two days later and it’s still mostly missing with no obvious sign of progress. Hmm.

Perhaps ten hours later, I also flipped the switch on my iPad. Oddly, while the album artwork did appear to disappear briefly, it very obviously started repopulating and seemed to finish pretty quickly. Certainly it wasn’t missing any artwork when I more thoroughly checked it hours later.20130124-171900.jpg

I’ve tried turning iTunes Match off and back on on my iPhone, but that didn’t help.

What’s next?

I have yet to replace my matched tracks with their higher quality versions from iTunes. I feel like I need to do some level of verification that the songs are the same.

I may delete all of the tracks from my iPhone and then let them download from iTunes to see if that fixes the artwork issue. I expect it will.

Will I re-up my subscription in a year? It’s too early to tell. If I stick with listening to music at work via my computer, rather than my iPad as I’ve been doing (or my iPhone before that), then having the automatic sync between disparate devices is probably worth $2.09 per month.

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Cortex Camera

About a month-and-a-half ago, I did something I don’t usually do: I purchased an iPhone camera app for $2.99. I’m certainly no stranger to purchasing apps, but I typically pay little attention to alternative camera apps and I seldom purchase an app — particularly for more than 99¢ — without either a friend’s suggestion or a trial version.

However, something about a mini-review of Cortex Camera convinced me to buy it. What this camera app does is take a quick burst of photos, lasting a few seconds, and then quickly processes those into a single photo. The result is supposed to be a higher quality photo than the built-in camera can provide in lower light settings.

My initial testing was basically positive, but I found it to have fairly limited use. It didn’t support iOS 6’s new low-light functionality, so it really only worked in moderate lighting. In such lighting, Cortex Camera’s results did have more detail and less noise than photos from the built-in camera, but the built-in results were really “good enough”. In true low-light, the built-in camera’s boosted ISO produced much better results. I didn’t delete the app, but wasn’t sure I would be likely to use it.

About a month ago, Cortex Camera received an update with several enhancements. The most notable was support for iOS6’s low-light mode. With this change, the app has become much more useful, as I will now demonstrate.

I took these two photos from the same spot. I had to back up extra so that the trees would block fewer lights, so I zoomed-in when taking both photos, though not by exactly the same amount as you can see. Even in these very-scaled-down versions (click them for full-size), you can see how much smoother the sky is in the Cortex shot.

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Built-in iPhone 5 Camera, zoomed

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Cortex Cam, 8MP, zoomed

I did the crops below on the iPad and tried to get them to be the same. One disadvantage of using the iPad is that I can’t look at one crop while I do the other. In retrospect, I could have easily used my iPhone to check the other crop (though I would have had to pause The Daily Show). Even then, the sizes would still have been different due to the slightly different zoom of the original images. I do not think these differences have any effect on the obvious quality win of the Cortex versions.

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built-in, 100% crop

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Cortex Cam, 100% crop

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built-in, 100% crop

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Cortex Cam, 100% crop

From these crops you can see that the built-in camera produced very muddy results, presumably due to some aggressive noise correction. Also, there is appreciably more motion blur. I’m not certain, but I think that Cortex uses a shorter exposer and then relies on a certain amount of additive combination of the composite photos to increase the effective exposure. In any event, I’m quite please with the results; well worth $3.

In case it isn’t obvious, this technique — and thus, Cortex Camera — isn’t useful for photos of moving objects.

One other point: some of Cortex Camera’s functionality is iPhone 5 only. On older iPhones, I believe it takes a video rather than multiple photos, so the final resolution is a bit lower (though higher than the video resolution). Also, it’s supposed to support 12.5MP on the iPhone 5, but with that enabled, the app consistently crashes for me.

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The Rumors…

…of my blog’s death were exaggerated. A little bit. Maybe. If anyone actually tried to access it in the last week or so that it’s been offline.

We’ve been having intermittent trouble with our Internet access, but it’s been up most of the time. However, coincident with one of the outages, my Linux server seems to have lost its ability to communicate on the network. I fought with it for a while from a software perspective and pretty much determined that there was a good chance that it was a hardware problem.

Rather than chase the problem further, I’ve decide to simply move everything to my iMac and get rid of the Linux box. Marci wants to get rid of the old Windows box as well, which is probably a good idea as I don’t think it’s even working at present and sits unused. Santa brought Brittney a MacBook Air for Christmas (I don’t know what dirt she has on him; I should grill her about that.), so we now have three Macs. Since Marci pretty much uses her work laptop for everything, that will still leave enough computers for everyone.

Moving the blog over was fairly painless once I realized that my IP address had changed and I needed to get the DNS settings updated. It seems like everything is working pretty well. I have yet to move the other web services over, most notably my photo albums. Since the Linux box has no network access, moving data requires an external drive and I don’t have one large enough (and available) to move all of the images at once. Besides, I already have all of the originals in Aperture on the Mac, so I may just re-export the entire library. Or something.

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My Second Hybrid

I never got around to writing a post about the Toyota Prius that I purchased last October. Perhaps I will do so eventually. Now, however, I am writing about a different sort of hybrid. Unfortunately, it’s probably a much less interesting type. It’s a hybrid laptop hard drive, which amounts to a normal laptop hard drive with a bit of SSD thrown in for performance advantages. Wow, I’m already bored with this topic just writing it, so if you want the details, have a look at what Wayne wrote about it earlier this year.

The primary differences between my story and Wayne’s are:

  • I only paid $100 for the drive. (Score!)
  • I put it in my MacBook Pro rather than a Windows system. (Duh!)
  • I did absolutely no performance testing. (Um…)

As you may or may not know, the hard drive in a MacBook Pro is not considered an upgradeable part by Apple, and certainly not a user-serviceable part. The procedure for disassembling and reassembling the laptop is far from trivial, though certainly not brain surgery. Using thorough instructions obtained from the Internet a very special resource I use, it took me about 40 minutes to perform the procedure.

Wow, I ended up writing about it again. I thought I was done with that. On a more interesting note, here’s a picture of my first hybrid:And, just for the heck of it, here’s a graph of my mileage so far (courtesy of the Road Trip App on my iPhone):

white - MPG, blue - average MPG, yellow - gas price

The low outlier is, I think, a result of either a heavy headwind or some bad gas, or both.

Totally Unrelated AsideI’m heading to D.C. this weekend for #NoVACon2011!

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