The Robservatory

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iPhone

Browse Apple’s clearance aisle

Back in August of 2015, Apple removed the distinct online store from its web site. The new store is integrated through all the pages of the site, which is a change for the better. However, I used to enjoy simply browsing the store itself, but this change mostly ended that pasttime.

The one (good) notable exception to “no store browsing” is the Refurbished and Clearance Store, which is still linked at the bottom of every page on Apple’s site. This is a great spot to look for deals on used but reconditioned Apple gear, typically for 15% to 20% less than brand new.

The site is nicely laid out, with links on the side of the page to each type of equipment. Click in, click around, browse at will.

To make it easier to jump into a given section of the refurb store, I took the top-level links and tossed them into a Keyboard Maestro macro group set to activate a pop-up palette:

You can download this simple macro for your own use, if you wish.

Now a browse of the refurb store is only a keyboard shortcut away. Good for me, bad for my wallet.

iOS App: Pool Break pool simulator

I recently got back into playing pool, joining a local 8-ball and 9-ball league. It’s been many (many) years since I played pool, and I can’t really put a table in our home (unless I want to take over the living room or the master bedroom, probably a no go on either one). So I went looking for an iOS pool simulation that would help me visualize angles and cue ball spin (English).

I tried quite a few, and in the end, found Pool Break to be the best for my needs. Here’s a very brief snippet of the gameplay…

You can turn the guidelines off; I use them to help understand the cue ball’s movements after contact. Pool Break supports 8-ball, 9-ball, straight pool, snooker, and a couple things I’ve never heard of (Carrom and Crokinole). You can play against the computer, or against others on the Internet. The physics appear to be very good, plus you can change some of the friction values if you wish.

I’ve only been playing against the computer opponents; if you choose their highest skill level, you probably won’t win, even with the aim lines on—they make some absurd shots! The only mode that’s lacking is a straight practice mode where I could position the balls as I like to try various shots. But that’s a minor nit; Pool Break is a very nice pool simulation…whether it will help my real-world ability to see various angles or not, only time will tell!

iOS App: Jollyturns tracks your day on the mountain

I spent yesterday at Mt. Bachelor, enjoying a bunch of fresh snow and surprisingly light crowds. To track my tracks, I’ve been using an app called Jollyturns Ski & Snowboarding. The app is free and includes one ski area; you can buy five more for $3.99, or $9.99 gets you “every ski area in the world.”

For each area, you can see a summary page with current conditions and info on lifts, runs, and restaurants, as well as a zoomable scan of the official trail map. (For Mt. Bachelor, that means four maps, as they have quite a bit of terrain.)

You can drill down into run type to find a specific run; it’ll be highlighted on the map. (Though if your area has more than one map, you may need to switch views to see the run on the proper map.) Click on a lift name, and it will be similarly highlighted on the map. Ditto for restaurants.

Jollyturns can also find and map your friends on the mountain, assuming they’re using the app, of course. I haven’t yet tested this social aspect of the app.

The one thing Jollyturns doesn’t do is track your runs on a map—there’s no way to see exactly what you skied in a given day. This is no longer true as of the latest update—you can view your tracks on Google Earth on the iPhone, or export as KML (or a couple of other options). As an example, here’s a map from my February trip to Mt. Bachelor, as seen in Google Earth on the iPhone:

Beyond the map, you can also see how much you skied (vertical feet), how far you skied (miles), and your peak speed. I’d love it if it would map my day (I assume there are other apps that do this, but I haven’t gone looking…recommendations?), but what it does do, it does well.

Jollyturns also includes an Apple Watch app—it provides a quick view of your vertical feet, distance, and peak speed. I much prefer a glance at my watch versus digging out the iPhone from multiple layers of clothing.

The one caveat I will add is that running Jollyturns can suck your battery down, as it’s updating location info via GPS, and doing so quite often. Yesterday, after 4.5 hours of continuous skiing, my phone was down to about 25% battery. So if you want to make sure you get all-day phone battery life while skiing, Jollyturns is probably not the app for you.

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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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).

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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!

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.

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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.

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.

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