The Robservatory

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Technology

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Making some marks on some iPhone 8 benches

With the arrival of my iPhone 8 Plus and its A11 Bionic CPU, I thought it’d be interesting to compare its benchmark performance (for the CPU and GPU) with some of the other gear in our home—iOS devices, Macs, and even a PC and a Linux box. In total, I tested 15 devices.

How did I test? I turned to Geekbench, which you can run on MacOS, Windows, and Linux (anywhere from free to $99), as well as on iOS ($.99). It has tests for both the CPU (using single and multiple cores) as well as the GPU (OpenCL and Metal on iOS/macOS; OpenCL and CUDA on Windows; CUDA on Linux).

What follows is far from a scientific study; I was just curious how the CPU and GPU in the iPhone compared to other tech gear in our home. As such, I didn’t run the tests under “ideal lab conditions,” I just ran them—one time per machine, with no special setup other than some basic stuff…

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My thoughts on the new Apple Watch, Apple TV, and iPhones…

In their September 2017 keynote, Apple launched the Apple Watch Series 3, the Apple TV 4K HDR, and three new iPhones—the 8 and the 8 Plus, and the X.

Here are my quick thoughts on each, and my buying plans…

Apple Watch Series 3

This is a nice evolution of the watch. The LTE doesn’t really interest me, as I’m sure it’ll require another $5 or $10 a month to my wireless carrier, and I almost always want my phone with me. (If I swam regularly, I might feel differently about that.) The much-faster CPU would be a nice upgrade over my original-generation watch, but the Series 3 is nearly a full millimeter thicker than the original…and honestly, I think the first version was already borderline too thick.

Will I buy? At this time, the outlook is doubtful; my watch is working fine, and a faster CPU isn’t worth the added thickness and $359 of my money.

Apple TV 4K HDR

Support for 4K is welcome, and long overdue. I’m not so sure about HDR; sometimes I find HDR images tend to look artificial, and I don’t know if I’d find the same issue in moving images. A real added bonus was Apple’s decision to provide the 4K version of movies you’ve purchased for free—this from a company that charged us to upgrade the quality of our music files a few years back.

I wish Apple wasn’t so damn set on streaming everything, though—I would much prefer to store movies directly on the device, to make it more portable and not subject to the vagaries of wifi, device positioning, and network load. Those times are gone, though, so now the only choice is whether or not to spend $20 more for the 64GB version.

Will I buy? Yes, and I’ll spend the extra $20 for the extra 32GB. I’ve been moving an Xbox One back and forth from the game TV to our 4K TV to watch 4K content, so this will be a simpler solution.

iPhone 8 and 8 Plus and iPhone X

Let me get this out of the way: I do not like the iPhone X. Well, that’s not true. I think almost all of it is absolutely stunning, and I really want one. Unfortunately, that’s “almost all,” and there are two things that aren’t perfect that will keep me from buying this phone…

The Notch. I absolutely, positively hate the cutout at the top of the phone for the sensors. In case you (somehow) missed it, this is the notch…

I would have much preferred if Apple just blacked out that entire region, giving up that marginally-usable pixel space for a cleaner appearance. I understand that videos can play cropped, so as to not be “notched,” but it’s the presence of the notch in other normal views that really gets to me. It’s everywhere.

Many people won’t notice, or won’t care about the notch. I wish I could be one of those people, but I can’t. During the keynote, all I could focus on whenever the phone appeared was the stupid notch. It simply grabs my eye, and I cannot unsee it when it’s there. (Maybe a future software update will stop drawing the desktop up there, which would make it look much nicer to my eye.)

Face ID. Apple has told us facial recognition is more secure, and I have no reason to doubt them. They also told us it’s fast, and it seemed to be in the demo. But secure and fast can’t override the absolute convenience of Touch ID. I can use Touch ID as I remove my phone from my pocket (press plus press-click), and it’s ready to go as soon as it’s out of my pocket. I don’t have to look at my phone unless I want to; if I have to look at my phone every time I want to unlock it, that’s going to get annoying. Very quickly.

Apple Pay is even worse. Today’s system is as near-magic as any tech I’ve ever used: Hold the phone near the register, rest finger on the home button, and you’re done. With Face ID, it appears (based on the demo in the keynote), I’ll have to both double-tap the side button and look at the phone to use Apple Pay. Ugh.

There are also some security considerations with Face ID, as pointed out by Ian Schray. The police cannot compel you to put your finger on your phone without a warrant…but can they compel you to simply look at your phone?

Other than these two no-go items, I really like everything else about the iPhone X. It’s only marginally larger (.20 inches taller, .15 inches wider) than an iPhone 7, yet has a screen that’s 30% larger and has more pixels than the gigantic Plus model phones. It also has the double cameras, which I would love to have on my next phone.

While you may not consider the notch and Face ID as deal breakers, they really are for me. I’ll go look at one in person, of course, but I simply cannot unsee the notch, and I hate the idea of having to look at my phone to unlock it, and taking more steps (and time) for Apple Pay.

So that leaves me with the 8/8 Plus versus my current 7. I think the new CPU, faster Apple-developed GPU, better cameras and sensors, 240fps slow-mo 1080p video, wireless charging, and the glass design make the iPhone 8 a compelling upgrade. As noted, I’d love to have the dual cameras to work with, but I think the Plus-size phone is just too big for daily use, so I think that’s out of the question. (I will visit the Apple Store again to see the 7 Plus before I decide for sure.)

Will I buy? As of now, yes, I plan on buying an iPhone 8, and hoping that…somehow…Touch ID survives for a long time to come, lest that iPhone 8 be my last new iPhone.

Back to posting…after fixing a snafu

I actually intended to start posting again a few days ago, but I was running into a couple of issues with the site: It was incredibly slow (annoying, but survivable), and the editor box was missing when I added a new post (which made posting quite tricky). I tried the usual troubleshooting steps—made sure everything was updated, disabled plug-ins, even briefly changed the site’s theme to see if it was a theme issue. No luck with anything.

Then I enabled WP_DEBUG on the site, which is something you should never do on a live site, as it will fill every page with tons of mostly meaningless warning and error messages. But in my case, I had to see what was happening when I tried to load the new post page. What I saw was troubling…

WordPress database error: [INSERT command denied to user '#######'@'###.###.###.###' for table 'wp_options']
INSERT INTO wp_options (option_name, option_value, autoload) VALUES ('_transient_timeout_jetpack_sync_constants_await', '1502403204', 'no') ON DUPLICATE KEY UPDATE option_name = VALUES(option_name), option_value = VALUES(option_value), autoload = VALUES(autoload)

WordPress database error: [INSERT command denied to user '#######'@'###.###.###.###' for table 'wp_options']
INSERT INTO wp_options (option_name, option_value, autoload) VALUES ('_transient_jetpack_sync_constants_await', '1502399604.7325', 'no') ON DUPLICATE KEY UPDATE option_name = VALUES(option_name), option_value = VALUES(option_value), autoload = VALUES(autoload)
...
...

This went on and on, with screenfuls of such errors. Uh oh. Web searches found lots of possible causes with fixes, but none that worked for me. So I logged into 1and1 to check on the database…and I didn’t have to get any further than the summary screen to see the problem, as revealed in the image at right: The site’s database was using 150MB of the 100MB allocated to it—whoops!

100MB is not a lot of space, and it’s not what I get when I create a new database on 1and1—the limit is now 1GB. So why so puny? Basically because I’ve had robservatory.com since 2005, and never ever updated the database! I have no idea how long it’s been over the limit, but apparently it was finally over the limit enough that no more data could be written to the database.

The problem is that 1and1 can’t just bump the size of the database; you have to create a new one and migrate your data over to it. Thankfully, that’s not overly hard (read the rest if you’d like to know how I did it; documented for my own future sanity). After I moved to the new database, my edit window was back (hooray!), and as an added benefit, the site got much faster: The database is now hosted on an SSD, and the site’s not throwing 5,000 errors per second any more.

And now, I can get back to real blog posts.

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Kwikset’s smart lock may require another purchase

Just a heads-up for anyone thinking of installing the well-reviewed Kwikset SmartCode 916 Touchscreen Electronic Deadbolt (and probably other similar Kwikset locks): Check your current deadbolt installation to see if you actually need more than what’s included in the box.

In the box is one deadbolt (the “A” in the image at right), which assumes your deadbolt screws into a chiseled cutout in the edge of the door. But if—like me—your deadbolt isn’t screwed into the door but just inserted in place, you need “A2,” a drive-in deadbolt. This part isn’t in the $190 lock kit, nor is it sold (best as I could tell) at Home Depot or Lowes or Ace Hardware.

Check your door before you order your lock, so you can add on a drive-in deadbolt if your door is non-chiseled. Me, because I didn’t know about this, I didn’t check. So I made a 40-mile round trip to Home Depot for a chisel set, then spent an hour chiseling out the door so the included deadbolt would fit.

Mission accomplished, but I think it’s pretty dang cheap of Kwikset to not include both deadbolt styles in a $190 lock kit! (Or perhaps even better, they should design a deadbolt with a removable screw-in plate, then one deadbolt would serve all customers.) So, yea, I had a frustrating Sunday morning!

Frankenmac 2017: The Beginnings

It’s been almost exactly nine years (wow!) since I last ventured into the land of Hackintoshes, or homebuilt PCs that can run macOS.

Back then, I built and used one, then wrote about the machine for Macworld, and they even lab tested it, where it held its own against real Macs costing much more.

Fast forward to 2017, and I’ve decided to tackle the project again. Why? Oddly, because there is a new Mac Pro coming, but it’s a ways away. I want something I can use in the interim, without spending a huge amount of money on. When the new Mac Pro ships—assuming it’s not an enhanced trash can design—I plan on upgrading, and the homebuilt Mac will become a gaming PC.

As I’m not writing about the project for Macworld this time around, I’m going to document things here on the blog as I go along. In today’s installment, I cover the first steps in the process: online resources and parts decisions.

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The magic corner cabinet

As yesterday was a cabinet-related post, I thought I’d stick with a theme and share this one I saw in a friend’s home a while back. It’s the perfect solution for those useless corner cabinets where most people stick a lazy susan, thus giving up on a bunch of storage space.

If we ever move and I have a chance to specify the cabinet hardware, I’m making sure one of these things goes into the corner cabinet!

(Don’t worry, this isn’t turning into a home remodeling blog; tech tips and stories return tomorrow.)

The end of the banging of the cabinet doors

I really hate the bang when a cabinet door closes. Years ago, I’d looked into soft-close mechanisms and found them pricey and a bit fussy to install. But this weekend, we were at Home Depot when I stumbled across these Liberty soft-close dampers. On a lark, I bought the 10-pack to see how well they’d work. The short answer: very well.

Installation is a breeze; they go into the corner of the cabinet with one screw—and the screw hole is angled at 60 degrees, so the pre-drilling goes quickly and at the proper angle. Here’s how one looks installed:

I think it took me about 20 minutes to install all 10, and I probably spent five of that on the first one, making sure I did it right. These are not metal pieces; the body is metallic-painted plastic. However they have decent reviews on Amazon, and were reasoinably priced. There are other brands, too, but I haven’t used any of those. All I know is that I’m thrilled with how they work…

Ah, the blissful sounds of a non-slamming cabinet door!

Create CSS gradients using an online tool

I recently needed a gradient background for a page I was making. My usual method of creating gradient backgrounds is to muck around in my image editor until I find some combination I like, then futz around in my text editor getting the syntax just right for CSS gradients across all the browsers.

But then I discovered the Ultimate CSS Gradient Generator from ColorZilla. This handy tool lets you create gradients directly in the browser, and it outputs all the required codes for full browser support. The UI is very much like any image editor’s gradient tool:

Drag the slider thumbs, click them to change the colors, click along the gradient to add color stops, etc. This tools works like a charm, and saves me a bit of time and aggravation whenever I need to make a CSS gradient.

Control animated GIF playback on WordPress sites

I wanted to embed an animated GIF in my post about changing the iOS Settings screen. However, because the GIF was about 4MB in size, I didn’t want it to auto-load—and in general, I find auto-playing GIFs annoying. I wanted something that would stop and start on click, like this (wonderfully subtle) example GIF

So I did what any WordPress user would do in such a situation: I went looking for a WordPress plug-in that offered control over GIFs.

I initially found WP GIF Player and GIF Animation Preview. Both did what I wanted, mostly, but they added a bunch of their own HTML and CSS, and/or relied on the WordPress media library (which I don’t use). After testing both, I just couldn’t get them to work with the GIF and the size/position that I wanted to use. Perhaps there are others that would work, but I got frustrated and gave up searching.

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Heading into the secure zone…somewhat slowly

My blog is, and has been, hosted with 1and1 for many years. While I’ve had some minor issues during that time, I’ve been generally happy with their hosting. Recently I noticed that they now offer a free SSL certificate. The free certificate only covers one domain and no sub-domains, but that’s all I needed for robservatory. I must say that 1and1 has made this incredibly easy: Enabling the certificate only took a couple mouse clicks, and it was active a minute or two later.

Getting the site actually secured, though, was and is a different story. You should see the secure site indicator on the front page, at least, indicating that you’ve made a secure connection to the site…

The “secure site” indicator as seen in Chrome…Safari uses an ugly gray lock.

Once you navigate back into the older posts, however, you’ll probably lose the lock indicator. The connection is still secure, but the older posts have hardcoded image paths that start with http://, so they load non-securely.

I’m using that as an excuse to go through my old posts and update broken links, etc. This takes a while, but it’s a good thing to do every so often. And note to self, never hardcode the full URL—I have no idea why I did that!

And yes, I could just do a mass replace in the database, but the audit has already helped me fix a couple handfuls of posts with errors.

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