The Robservatory

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iphone

On the subject of Apple devices and battery life

In one of his recent “Hey Apple Fix This” columns for Macworld, Kirk McElhearn wrote about Apple’s seemingly never-ending pursuit of thinness and its affect on the battery life of its products.

When I got this laptop, replacing a 13-inch MacBook Pro, I was very happy that it was thinner and lighter, but my goal was not to own a computer that could give me paper cuts; I wanted a computer that was practical.

While I completely agree with Kirk about the stupidity of pursuing thinness at the cost of better battery life, as a work-at-home person, the battery life of my Apple devices isn’t usually an issue…until I have to take a trip, that is. Recently, I headed to San Francisco for a special “Thanks Sal!” dinner, thanking Sal Soghoian for all he’s done for Mac automation over the last 20+ years. This was a very short trip—a 75 minute flight, one night away from home, then 75 minute flight back home. (Plus approximately 2,500 hours in the two airports.)

Because we’re a small two-person company that writes Mac software, and it’s my job to support our customers, I always have to bring my Mac (a late 2013 13″ Retina MacBook Pro). And my iPhone, to contact my family/friends and check email. And my watch, because I’ve gotten used to having it around for notifications and weather and such. And to pass a bit of time in the hotel room, I’ll usually bring my iPad.

Because of Apple’s thinness decisions, only one of these devices (the iPad) can make this very short journey without needing a recharge. That meant I’d need to bring a Lightning cable (iPhone/iPad charge from computer), my Apple Watch charging cable (charge from computer), and my MacBook’s power brick with wall adapter (I did leave the extension section at home, though).

All of that to support a simple overnight trip. Two-day battery life out of my devices would be so worth some extra thickness. (If I owned a newer laptop, it would have been even worse, as I would have needed some USB adapters, too, I’m sure.)

As an aside, what I didn’t bring was an in-car charger, and that turned out to be a mistake. I drove a roughly 60 mile round-trip (2.5 hours in the car, with traffic) on Friday to see a friend, using my iPhone for navigation both directions. The rental car didn’t have any USB jacks, so I was using my iPhone on battery power.

By the time I got back to the hotel, my phone had entered power saving mode. Thankfully, I was back early enough to charge it before the evening’s festivities started. This seems like unusually high battery drain, but I don’t do a lot of in-car navigating with my iPhone, so I don’t know. (I used Apple Maps on the way there, and Waze on the way back.)

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.

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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!

I have completed my first—and last—marathon

Last weekend, I ran (along with about 7,000 other entrants) the Portland Marathon. This was my first ever marathon, and also my last-ever marathon. I finished, in 4:12:53 (1,365th place, of 4,295 finishers), which is about how long I thought it’d take me. What follows is a brief look back at how I got to the point where I willingly chose to run 26.2 miles; you may find the information useful if you’re contemplating running a marathon yourself someday.

About the race

The Portland Marathon is a great race, now in its 45th year. It’s actually two races in one, as there’s a half-marathon with the same start and finish points. As seen on the course map (caution: 2.8MB PDF), the two races share the same course until the 11 mile mark. At that point, the half marathon returns downtown for the finish, while the marathon heads into Northwest Portland, then loops up and over the St. John’s Bridge, which would typically provide some amazing views. Of course, it was pouring rain and cloudy all day, so the views weren’t quite so good for us.

The course then follows along a bluff (again, typically scenic) overlooking Portland before descending down into the east side industrial area (running right along the rail yard), then returning to downtown (over the much less scenic Broadway Bridge) and on to the finish.

Why did I decide to run a marathon?

When this year started, I had no thought of running a marathon. I have thought about it in years past, when I was running regularly—and my dad had run them when I was younger, so they intrigued me. (My dad was quite fast; his best was a 2:40, which is an insane 6:08 a mile for 26.2 miles!) But as of the start of the year, it’d been roughly four years since I was running on a regular basis, so running even one mile seemed ludicrous.

To force myself to get in shape this year, I set a pretty ridiculous goal: I decided I’d walk or run 2,016 miles in 2016. This meant averaging 5.5 miles a day, every day, for the entire year. From someone who had probably ran a total of five miles in 2015. Yea, it’s a pretty insane goal.

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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.

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…

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Another way to look at 74.5 million iPhones in 90 days

My buddy Kirk came up with some analogies about just how much “stuff” 74.5 million iPhones represents. While I found his comparisons very interesting, as a Finance guy, I have a different method of comparison for you to consider…

I started with guesstimating the mix of of iPhone models and variations sold, using nothing more than common sense that says the mid-tier version would be most popular, with a few more people opting for high-end over low-end:

Pricing Sales Mix
Model Entry Mid High Entry Mid High
6 $649 $749 $849 15% 60% 25%
6+ $749 $849 $949 15% 60% 25%
5s $549 $599 50% 50%
5c $450 100%

I then estimated the sales mix by iPhone model, using Tim Cook’s statement that the iPhone 6 was the most popular. I distributed the rest of the mix assuming that the newer models would sell more than the older models. Once I had the mix percentages, that let me calculate an average selling price for each phone. Combine that with the estimated sales mix, and out pops revenue by phone line:

Model Avg Sale Share of Total Units (Mil) Revenue ($Mil)
6 759 50% 37.3 $28,273
6+ 859 30% 22.4 $19,199
5s 574 15% 11.2 $6,414
5c 450 5% 3.6 $1,676
Totals 74.5 $55,562

All those numbers and assumptions crunch down to this:

In one quarter, Apple’s iPhone business was somewhere around $55.5 billion dollars in revenue.

One quarter. Not a year. A quarter. Ninety days.

But just on that one quarter’s iPhone sales, “Apple iPhones Inc.” would be number 50 on the 2014 Fortune 500, coming in just below Caterpillar ($55.656 billion), and above UPS ($55.438 billion). Remember, those are full year results, versus just one quarter’s iPhone sales.

A couple other fun comparisons using these assumptions:

  • Google’s full-year revenue in 2014 was $60.2 billion, ranking them only four spots ahead of one quarter’s worth of “Apple iPhones Inc.” on the Fortune 500.
  • Using last year’s 169,170,000 total iPhones sold, “Apple iPhones Inc.” would be number 13 on the Fortune 500, ranking between CVS and Fannie Mae.

74.5 million iPhones in one quarter is a stunningly huge number. Huge enough to put the fictitious “Apple iPhones Inc” company well up the Fortune 500 based on just 90 days’ sales. Mind…blown.

Quick poll: How many iDevices do you own?

From fiscal 2002 (the iPod’s launch year) through fiscal 2014, Apple sold 1,224,700,000 iPods, iPhones, and iPads. That’s a lot of iDevices! In looking around our (four person) home, I count more than I would have expected. So that got me thinking, how many of these things do other people own?

Hence this simple poll. It doesn’t matter if the device is in use or not in use, working or not working…I just think it might be interesting to see how many of these things each of us owns.

How many iPads, iPods, and iPhones (of any vintage) do you (and/or your household) own?

Voting is 100% anonymous; I’m not collecting or tracking IP addresses or any other identifiable information. So take a second and tell the world how many iDevices you own.

Portable power pack products prevent powerless problems

“Hello, my name is Rob, and I have a portable power problem. It’s been six days, 13 hours, and 23 minutes since I last bought a portable power solution.”

OK, so that’s a bit over the top. But still, I find portable chargers appealing, as I don’t like being without power when away from a wall outlet. Whether it’s a long flight, a camping trip, or a Mother Nature-induced power outage, I like having alternatives. That’s why there are currently eight chargers in my collection, as seen in the image at right (click for larger).

And while I can’t pretend to be anywhere near as thorough as The Wirecutter, I thought it’d be interesting to compare all eight of these portable chargers.

The following table provides baseline specs on all eight chargers, and shows how much power you’re getting for each ounce of weight you carry (mAh per Ounce) and how much you’ll pay per milliampere-hour (mAh per Dollar)—so you can choose by power effectiveness or cost effectiveness. (The order of the table corresponds to the numbering in the above-right photo.)

My two favorites are highlighted; the Jackery is an ideal size to carry around nearly everywhere, and the EC Technology is excellent for camping trips or other extended periods away from power. Beyond the table, I share a few thoughts on each of these power bricks, in case you’re really interested in these things.

# Product Size (LxWxH, inches) Volue (cubic inches) Weight (oz) Capacity (mAh) mAh per Ounce Cost ($) mAh per Dollar
1 OrigAudio w/ Oracle logo 3.75 1.75 0.80 5.3 4.1 1,000 243.9
2 Sony CPV3 Portable Power Pack 4.00 1.50 0.75 4.5 3.0 2,800 933.3
3 Sony USB Portable Charger 5.13 2.75 0.63 8.8 9.6 10,000 1,041.7
Sony Cycle Energy – 2+3 sold as a set 13.3 12.6 12,800 1,015.9 $83.85 152.7
4 JunoPower JunoJumper 5.47 2.95 0.59 9.5 7.2 6,000 833.3 $99.99 60.0
5 EC Technology Power Bank 6.30 2.90 0.80 14.6 15.4 22,400 1,454.5 $45.95 487.5
6 Jackery Giant+ Portable Charger 4.30 3.10 0.80 10.7 10.4 12,000 1,153.8 $39.95 300.4
7 Boostcase Hybrid Battery Case 5.50 2.38 0.40 5.2 2.8 2,200 800.0 $99.95 22.0
8 Zagg 6000 battery pack 4.25 2.75 1.70 19.9 7.5 6,000 800.0 $55.89 107.4

Read on for a little blurb on each charger…

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