The Robservatory

Robservations on everything…



See the actual strength of the iPhone’s cellular connection

This is a very old tip, but I’d never seen it before, so I figure it might be new to some others, too. My home has a relatively weak cell signal, varying between one and three dots on the iPhone’s display. But sometimes, even when I have three dots, the quality of my calls seems spotty.

While looking for some tool to try to analyze the cell signal’s actual strength in my home, I stumbled on this useful tip at Lifehacker: It’s possible to make your phone display its actual signal strength in decibel-milliwatts, or dBm. Here’s my phone, showing the stock display on the left, and the dBm value on the right:

And this explains a lot: While two dots of five seems like a decent connection, the actual value of -116dBm is bad. (Signal strength goes from a best of 0 to a worst of -140 or so.) How bad? According to this site, it’s an unusable signal. So, yea, don’t try to call my cell phone when I’m at home!

If you’d like to set your phone to display the actual signal strength (you can tap the indicator to flip between values and dots), read the above-linked article (or any of the thousands of other sites that have the same tip), or just read the rest of this post, where I’ve recreated the simple steps.


iOS App: OSnap! Pro for time lapse and animation movies

A while back, I created a time lapse movie of a lava lamp warming up. I’d wanted to use my iPhone for this, as time lapse is a built-in feature, but the iPhone implements it in an odd way: The iPhone will vary the time intervals between pictures as your recording time increases. This keeps all time lapse movies to a similar duration (20 to 40 seconds), but it means you can’t shoot a constant-rate time lapse movie.

I solved the problem for the lava lamp movie by using OSnap! Pro, a $3.99 iOS app (for both iPhone and iPad). I’ve wanted to write more about this app for a while (I’ll be calling it OSnap from here on out), and a recent snowstorm in central Oregon gave me the perfect chance to test the app again before writing about it…

Ah, if only it went so quickly in reality! Making this movie was a breeze with OSnap! Pro; read on to see what makes OSnap so good (and to see a lame-but-short stop-motion animation movie, too).


Useful site: iStockNow finds Apple products

During today’s recording of our The Committed podcast, Ian mentioned a site he uses to check for sometimes hard-to-acquire Apple products. The site, iStockNow, is very nicely designed and makes it really simple to check availability not only at your local stores, but also globally.

Start by clicking the left-side filters section for the products you’d like to check on, then view the map on the right to see where they’re in stock. For example, a search for the 15″ MacBook Pro Touch Bar in Space Gray shows that it’s available throughout North America, except in Mexico City:

But if you search for a 42mm Apple Watch in Stainless Steel in retail stores, you’ll see that most of North America is a sea of red. Zoom in on the map, though, and there are some stores with stock:

When you find a store with inventory—the green pushpin—click on it to get the details of that store’s inventory:

If you’re looking for something particularly hard to find—cough AirPods cough—iStockNow may just help you secure your item. According to Ian, at least, that’s exactly how he got his AirPods!

The ridiculous economics of Real Racing 3

I used to play a lot of Real Racing 3 (RR3), an iOS auto racing game. Like, quite a lot. At one point, I owned all 132 cars available at that time, and had completed all the events.

To reach that point, I spent about $60 on in-app purchases—RR3’s in-app purchases were really expensive. And yes, that’s a lot, but I didn’t own a console at the time, and I judged the app worth the cost of a console racing game. (I also took advantage of some programming glitches that enabled occasional free in-app purchase items; without these glitches, I doubt I would have made it as far as I did.)

Once I’d spent $60 and could go no further without spending more, I stopped playing; $60 was my limit. I did keep my iCloud save game file in case I wanted to revisit it someday. That someday was yesterday.

Since I left, the game has grown a lot: There are now 171 cars available, or 39 more than when I stopped playing. To finish the game again, I’d need to acquire (and upgrade) all of those cars (and race a huge number of new races). I thought “maybe it’s OK to spend another $60 or so; it’s been a few years.”

But as I looked into what it might cost to finish the game, I found that the economics are still absolutely ridiculous. How ridiculous? About $3,665 ridiculous. Yes, I estimate it would cost me $3,665 to finish RR3. At that spending level, though, there are some other purchases I could consider…

Instead of finishing RR3, I could purchase a commercial-grade 48″ gas range. Or I could buy a loaded Touch Bar Retina MacBook Pro with a 2.9GHz Core i7 CPU, 1TB SSD, and upgraded graphics.

The third option, though, is the best comparison: For $129 less than what I think it would cost me to finish RR3, I could purchase all of the following:

That’s a full console-based driving setup, including a 65″ 4K TV, for less than what I’d probably have to pay to finish (temporarily, until the next expansion) Real Racing 3. Yes, I’d say that’s ridiculous.

But where do my numbers come from, and how could I possibly think it’d cost that much to finish the game?! Read the rest if you’d like the nitty-gritty on my $3,665 estimate.


The iPhone 7 and third-party battery pack cases

One aspect of Apple’s decision to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone 7/7 Plus that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere is the impact it will have on third-party battery pack case makers. Traditionally, third-party battery pack cases plug into the Lightning port, and typically provide a micro USB connector in its place. They also then usually have a headphone passthrough, either via a port extender or a special headphone cable extender, to allow you to plug in headphones without removing the battery pack.

I was curious how the case makers were going to address this for the iPhone 7, because blocking the Lightning port means that users will have to use wireless headphones when using a battery pack. I searched Amazon for iPhone 7 battery case, to see what might be in store. However, the results were disappointing—basically, every single product uses micro USB for charge and sync. I could go on, but you get the idea: None of the manufacturers seem to be worried about blocking the Lightning port with their battery cases.

The only exception I found was the SOLEMEMO Ultra Slim Charging Case, which isn’t actually designed for the iPhone 7. But as designed for the iPhone 6, this case uses an ultra-slim bottom with a tiny Lightning pass-through, as seen in the photo below (borrowed from one of the reviews on Amazon).

This style of connector would allow you to connect wired headphones (either Apple’s Lightning pods, or standard headphones via Apple’s Lightning to 3.5mm adapater cable). I don’t know if this company will be making an iPhone 7 version or not; the iPhone 6 case should fit the iPhone 7, but the camera opening won’t line up with the camera’s new position on the iPhone 7.

(I checked Mophie, too, but they’re early on in their iPhone 7 case building process; their iPhone 7 link takes you to their Explore our Process page, which describes the method and timeline they follow in making products for new devices.)

So if you’re buying an iPhone 7, and you want a battery case right now, and you want to use wired headphones with that case, as of today I see three solutions:

  1. Buy the SOLEMEMO Ultra Slim Charging Case for $35, knowing you won’t be able to take pictures. Note that this is a 2400mAh battery pack, so it’s not as large as some of the others (but it is very slim).
  2. Buy Apple’s $99 iPhone Battery Case. This is an 2365mAh battery pack (up from 1877mAh for the iPhone 6s), and it nicely integrates—at the iOS level—with your iPhone. But it’s pricey, underpowered, and has The Hump. For the cost of the Apple pack, you could get two SOLEMEMO packs and have $30 left over!
  3. Buy any of the forthcoming iPhone 7 battery cases and use wireless headphones. OK, so that totally skips the ‘use wired headphones’ requirement, but it’s really the only other option at this time.

I’m hoping we’ll see someone come out with something truly innovative here, such as Lex Friedman’s suggestion on Twitter:

Adding an actual headphone jack would probably be a home run product; I have no idea if it’s technically possible to split the Lightning port’s signals in that way (I would bet it’s not). Even lacking that, though, it’d be nice to see more third-party cases that pass through the Lightning connector, so that wired headphones could still be used.

Why I still use the admittedly-awful Messages

A while back, David Chartier tweeted this:

David really doesn’t like Messages (for many valid reasons), and has often tweeted and written about other, better messaging platforms, including his current best-of-breed example, Facebook’s Messenger.

And you know what? In general, I agree with David: Messages sucks. It’s got latency issues, messages sometimes vanish, shared URLs are ugly, search is troublesome, it lacks many features found in other apps, etc. Yet still, it’s my messaging app of choice, and will remain my messaging app of choice, probably forever. Why?

First of all, it’s bundled with every Mac and iOS device sold, which means that most of the people in my social group already have it and use it. I don’t have to send a link to someone and explain how to install the app, set up an account, find my name/phone number, add me to their group of friends, and initiate a conversation.

Does that make Messages good? No, just because an app is bundled doesn’t mean it’s excellent. (See previous generations of Internet Explorer on Windows, for instance.) But it does make it pervasive, and in a messaging app, that’s what I want.

But even beyond that—even if Messages were so abysmal it lost 50% of the messages I sent and often force rebooted my devices and remotely spilled my milk—I would probably continue to use it. Why? Because Apple isn’t in the business of making money off of who I talk to, what I talk to them about, or what devices I use to do that talking. Apple wants to sell devices, not data about how people are using Apple’s devices.


With Siri, it seems verb tense matters

My buddy Kirk McElhearn posted a blurb on his blog about Siri and 18th century painters: Siri and the History of Art. In a nutshell, he asked Siri who was the greatest French painter of the 18th century. She replied with “one eighteenth is approximately zero point five five five.” Say what?

He asked me to try, but when I tried, here’s what I got:

So Siri only knows art history in the USA, it seems? (Kirk lives in the UK.) Actually, no. On closer inspection, when I spoke, Siri heard “Who is the greatest…,” versus Kirk’s Siri hearing “Who was the greatest….”

So I tried agin, making sure Siri heard me say “was.” Sure enough, when Siri hears “was,” I get math results. When Siri hears “is,” I get art results.

If you want Siri to help you with your history, it seems you should talk to her in the present tense!

A unique lava lamp time-lapse

We occasionally take our kids to a local place, Big Al’s, which is one of those bowling/arcade places that give out tickets as rewards from the arcade games. Being good parents, we too sometimes play the games (you know, to spend time with the kids…yea, that’s it). Over the years, we amassed quite a bunch of tickets, but weren’t quite sure what to spend them on.

The last time we were there, I was smitten by a lava lamp, similar to this one, but ours has a black base and blue “lava.” I don’t know why (childhood flashback?), but I decided some of our points cache would go to this mesmerizing but otherwise useless device.

When I got it home, I was surprised at just how long it takes to warm up: It can take nearly an hour before any “lava” starts flowing, and about two hours before it really looks like a traditional lava lamp. During the first hour, though, the melting wax in the lamp makes some really cool abstract bits of art, as seen in the photo at right.

I thought this might make a neat time lapse, so I set out to record it with the iPhone. My first attempt failed, due to the iPhone’s auto-adjusting time-lapse feature. Because the lamp takes so long to get going, the gap between frames winds up being quite long. Long enough that when stuff does start happening, the iPhone’s time-lapse gaps are too wide to make for an interesting video.

I needed another solution, so I headed to the iOS App Store to see what was available…


Cutting the (headphone) cord

Until very recently, I wasn’t a user of Bluetooth stereo heaphones. I don’t necessarily have a good answer as to “why not?,” other than I recall trying a pair early on, and not being impressed by sound quality and battery life. That was, of course, years ago, but I hold grudges for a long time, it seems.

Recently I thought I’d try cutting the cord again; there are any number of Bluetooth headphones available—including some very expensive models. Needless to say, these are not in my budget as a casual music listener. I was more interested in something in the $100 or less price range, and in an over-the-ear (versus on-the-ear or in-the-ear) model.

While browsing Amazon one day, I stumbled onto these headphones, with possibly the longest product name I’ve ever seen in Amazon: Sentey Bluetooth Headphones v4.0 with Microphone B-trek H10 Wireless Headphones Headset Foldable with Mic for Running Sport or Travel, 40mm Audiophile Drivers – Also Comes with 3.5mm Cable -Up to 15 Hours Battery – Comes with Free Transport / Protection Carrying Case Ls-4570.

Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it? I’ll just call them Sentey Bluetooth Headphones. Although they list for $100, every time I’ve looked, they’ve been listed for sale at $50. And with over 100 very positive reviews—and Amazon’s easy return policy—this felt like a safe bet. So I ordered a pair, and have had them for a few days now.

So were they worth $50? Absolutely; keep reading for my review.


How far we’ve come…

Happy 34th birthday, IBM PC!

While I didn’t own the original, our family did get one of the follow-on models. But that tweet really got me thinking about just how far we’ve come in 34 years. And while the original PC did start at $1,565, that price didn’t get you much of a usable machine, as noted by

A basic system for home use attaches to an audio tape cassette player and a television set (that means no floppy drives or video monitor) sold for approximately $1,565. PC-DOS, the operating system, was not available on cassette, so this basic system is only capable of running the Microsoft BASIC programming language, which is built-in and included with every PC.

If you really wanted a usable IBM PC, you were looking at a much higher cost (from the same site):

A more typical system for home or school with a memory of 64K bytes, a single diskette drive and its own display, was priced around $3,000. An expanded system for business with color graphics, two diskette drives, and a printer cost about $4,500.

Keep in mind this is 1981 money. Adjusted for inflation, those costs are dramatically different in 2015 dollars:

  • $1,565 (Basic IBM PC) –> $4,109
  • $3,000 (Home IBM PC) –> $7,876
  • $4,500 (Business IBM PC) –> $11,814

Doesn’t seem quite so cheap now, does it? But what’s really amazing is what you can do with that same amount of money today. I’ll use the Home IBM PC as a comparison, so I’ve got $7,876 to spend. Here’s what you can get for that in 2015…


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