Into the dark side. Or whatever.

apple-logoMy Droid 3 has been giving me fits for a while.  The phone itself is fine…  there doesn’t seem to be a hardware problem.  A couple of months ago, though, it started nagging me daily to install a slew of app updates, including “Google Play Services”.  Half the apps I use regularly finally refused to run at all until I installed Google Play, which I resisted because it wanted access to everything on my phone.  All data, all history, location, email, everything.  I finally had no choice but to dump the phone or install the damn thing, so I installed it (and the subsequent dozen or so other app updates).  Since that time the phone has been plagued with odd behavior.  It will periodically freeze up, require reboots, not be able to place a call for several minutes after a restart, and I’ve had to pull the back off and remove the battery a couple of times when it froze up and started getting uncomfortably hot.

My employer offers me the option of having a corporate owned cell phone.  We’ve currently got a choice between Blackberry and iPhone.  I can understand their refusal to allow Android phones to connect to the corporate network — the ease with which an Android can be rooted and bent to the owner’s will is great for experimenters, developer and hackers (a term used in the proper, good sense here) – but it also removes any surety that an app can actually be trusted.  Anyway, the Blackberry phones are locked down tight and everything (web, email, etc) goes through the corporate proxies.  The iPhone situation is different; there’s a secure VPN app that handles all the corporate traffic, but outside of that app web browsing and email don’t pass through company servers.

I opted for the iPhone, so as of yesterday afternoon I have a shiny new iPhone 5S.  It is, I believe, the first Apple product I have ever owned, aside from a garage full of Lisas that passed through my hands back in the late 1990s. I have not used any Apple products for more than a few minutes since the Apple ][e.  No iPod, iPad, iPhone, Macs, iMacs, nuthin’ more than a passing familiarity.

So far I’m impressed.  The phone itself is a thing of beauty, which is to be expected of any new cell phone.  The Samsung Galaxy S III that Lisa carries (and the IV and V, I assume) are nice too.  So no big surprise there.  The thing is quite responsive, and almost everything is simple and intuitive.  I especially like being able to uninstall an app without having to wade through setup menus to do it, and the ability to effortlessly pull up the flashlight, timer, camera and calculator without even unlocking the phone — very nice.  It will even show me text messages and the first couple lines of new emails without unlocking the screen.

There are several areas in which iOS seems to really outshine Android OS.  The email client is a bit nicer than any I have used on the Droid.  iBooks has far and away the best PDF reader I have used on any platform.  The voicemail management is so well integrated with Verizon voicemail that I honestly didn’t realize it was there at first.  I see that there is a built-in flashlight app (lacking on the Droids) and timer/stopwatch.  The camera and its app is much better than anything I have seen on a phone before.  Overall, the UI seems a little smoother, a little quicker, a little more intuitive.  I can see why people rave about their iThingies.  And Siri works pretty well.  I even like the Lightning connector, though the cable they included could have stood to be about a foot longer — easily and cheaply remedied on Fleabay.  And while more of a hardware thing, the fingerprint scanning button is slick as all hell.

A few areas could use improvement.  For one, I do miss the “back” button.  I really do.  I get the whole single-button idea, but I’m constantly reaching for the back button.  A nightstand/dock mode like my Droid has would be awfully nice (maybe I just haven’t found it yet).  And for the love of all that’s good in the world, why can’t I just drag and drop files from my PC??  Using iTunes to copy PDFs to the phone is just plain stupid.

Anyway, the message here is really twofold.  First, kudos to Apple — the iPhone is really, really nice.  I don’t know that I would ever have bought one if I had to spend my own money on it, but it’s nice.  Second, shame on Google.  It took a lot to drive me away from Android, a platform I loved for what it was and what it represented.  They just couldn’t leave well enough alone.  They have managed to make it so intrusive and so inhospitable that even I had to walk away in disgust.

Now, about that Macbook Air…  hmmm.


Improving the Neato vacuum

If you have a Neato XV series robotic vacuum, and you don’t already have one, you need to switch to the curved/spiral brush.  This is the one Neato ships with the “pet” versions of the vacuum.  It’s far quieter than the one with the parallel straight rubber blades.  The sound of the vacuum is reduced from a dull roar to a far less intrusive sound.  I can barely hear it when the vacuum is running downstairs and I’m in my office.  I’ve also noticed that it also seems to pick up a lot more dust and debris.  Overall it’s a huge improvement.

I ordered mine from Crucial Vacuum, part number 945-0002.  Best 25 bucks you can spend on your little robot friend.

End of the Straight Talk experiment

I’m letting the Straight Talk Wireless lapse, and will sell or give away the phone.  Overall impression: The service is fine, just not the right direction for me right now.  The phone is not without its faults, but is good as a very basic smart phone.

The only real annoyance I’ve had is Straight Talk texting the phone a few times with upsells, and calling the house number to “remind” me that the service is expiring in a few days.  I suppose I can forgive the reminder calls (though I do wish they could be stopped without calling in to talk to a salesdroid).  The texts were a little annoying, though.

Straight Talk Wireless / Huawei Ascend Y

I’ve been carrying a cheap little Huawei Ascend Y on Straight Talk Wireless for a couple of weeks now.  The short story is, I’ve gone back to my Droid 3.

STW is OK as far as service goes.  Fine, in fact.  I do get an occasional text message from them trying to upsell, which is a little annoying, but not overly so.  Aside from that, it’s regular Verizon coverage, which is to say excellent.  So…  no complaints there.

The Huawei phone…  well…  what a POS, for one thing.  As an Android phone, it’s as close to the bottom of the barrel as you can get.  The web browser is next to useless — it frequently seems to just lose its mind, followed by a crash.  The phone has VERY little internal memory, and a lot of the apps can’t be moved to the SD card.  Some pretty basic features, like a flash for the camera, are missing, and some firmware features are inexplicably missing.  Like…  no quick way to silence the ringer.  The phone cost me less than $18, I think, and it’s about worth what it cost and no more.  So…  POS, but not a ripoff.  Want it?  I don’t need it.

So, will I drop Verizon for Straight Talk?  Not immediately.  With discounts, my phone costs us $43 and change per month.  Our overall bill is ridiculously high, but dropping my phone for STW would actually cost us a little more.  I’ll continue to look for a less expensive way to keep them on Verizon, but I’m not anticipating that will work.  We may just drop Verizon, pay the early termination fee, and move – or maybe we can find two separate plans under VW that will eb cheaper.  Time will tell.


Neato vacuum update

My only complaint is that we only have one.

Rosie, our Neato robotic vacuum, has been doing a great job of keeping the floors vacuumed in the rooms where she runs.  I still haven’t done anything to the living room to keep her from getting hung up on the coffee table, but I’ve turned her loose in there once or twice anyway.  Once I used the magnetic strip to keep her out from under it, the other time I flipped it (the table) on its side.

The family room and upstairs, though, are now getting vacuumed a couple times a week.  I am always amazed at the amount of crud that comes out of the carpet even when it seems clean.  I’ve only had to intervene a couple of times when something got left on the floor (like a blanket) and sucked up, or once when the bot got hung up on a lamp base.  Overall — well worth the money.  I empty the dust bin after each run and occasionally vacuum off the paper filter; I just replaced it for the first time.  It came with 4 spares, and it looks like they only cost 3-4 bucks each.  Not bad if it means having your carpet vacuumed regularly.

Neato Robotics SV Signature robotic vacuum

Santa left us one of these for Christmas.  While Lisa was not terribly thrilled, I for one welcomed our new robotic underling.  🙂  And, within a few days Lisa decided maybe “Rosie” wasn’t so bad after all.

Neato XV Signature
Neato XV Signature

The thing does a pretty nice job of keeping the floors swept.  Unlike the Roomba, the Neato robots take an orderly approach to vacuuming a room – they take a lap around the perimeter to map out the room, then use a linear pattern in most places to make sure everything gets covered, but only once or twice.  I like the approach.  I was originally a little concerned about tire tracks, but it just looks freshly vacuumed.

I’ve been amazed at the sheer amount of crud it will suck up from even a recently vacuumed carpet.  It does a decent job on wood and tile as well, but carpeted rooms is where it really shines.  You’ll still need to vacuum occasionally, since it doesn’t get all the way up to the edge – unlike Roomba it doesn’t have an edge brush, but the only time you will notice is if you let it clean up a very dusty wood floor.

It’s smart enough to recharge itself when needed, navigates well, and you can schedule cleanings for whenever you want – there’s also a spot clean mode and manual start, all with just a button push or two.  It’s only gotten stuck a few times.  Shoelaces are a problem, of course, but rugs don’t seem to be.  We do have a couple of pieces of furniture that are at just the “wrong” height.  For instance, one coffee table in the living room — the laser scanner can’t see it, but the robot can’t fit under it.  On the other hand, it gets under another coffee table with no problem and vacuums where the regular vacuum can’t go without moving the furniture around.

It won’t completely replace your regular vacuum, but it does a very nice job of keeping things cleaned up in between regular cleanings.  Costco has the best price I was able to find on them.

Roku: meh.

I spent some time playing around with a new Roku 3 over the past week or two.  From a hardware standpoint, it’s a pretty cool little box.  Wifi, HDMI, remote with accelerometers, all kinds of coolness.  Unfortunately, its use as a streaming media player is limited at best, at least for what I wanted.

If all you need is a player for Netflix/Hulu Plus/Amazon and similar paid services, it’s fine.  If you’re the type who loves video game blogs, old movies no one has ever heard of and similar stuff, I guess it would be grand. In general, though, the free content that’s available is worth exactly what it costs (if you don’t count the cost of the Roku), and I’m not looking for more places to send money every month.

My intent was to use it to play movies, recorded TV and live TV streamed from a MythTV backend.  The success rate ranged from great to zero, depending on what I was trying to do.  The Roku would have me transcoding every single video recording I have (no thanks, really).  The Plex and MythTV frontends I found were pretty buggy.  The “Brightscript” language used to build content channels is not something trivial to pick up, and I’m really not looking for a second career as a programmer.  I finally decided that if I do build a whole-house TV/movie/music/DVR system, I’ll probably have to use little dedicated boxes running either XBMC or Mythtv, and talking to a dedicated MythTV backend.

Fortunately, Roku has a pretty good return policy.  This one’s going back.  It doesn’t seem to be a bad little box for what it does, it just doesn’t do what I need.

Just too cool.

I was using my new-ish Owon DS7102V scope tonight to troubleshoot a problem with a PicoKeyer firmware function.  After I got it fixed, I took a screen shot to show just how impressive the capture buffer is on this thing…

Yes, that’s “DE N0XAS” in Morse code, sent at maybe 15 WPM.  I set the scope up for single-shot capture, then saved the screen image to a USB drive.  Suh-weet.  I don’t think I posted these before, but here are some from when I was testing the ID-O-Matic II audio.

The first shows the audio wave form — a nice approximation of a sine wave.  The second shows the scope’s FFT function, with two cursors (the vertical purple lines) showing the fundamental at 800 Hz, and the second harmonic at twice that.  The third shows the cursors, now horizontal, showing that the second harmonic is about 33 dB down from the fundamental.  Again…  suh-weet.  Not at all bad for a sub-$400 scope.

On the home stretch!

After a week or so of work, we’re getting a lot closer to being finished with the big jobs in the garage.  The floor is looking pretty good; we still have the last section to do but that should only take a day.  Lisa will be the first to get to park on the new floor this afternoon when she gets home from work.

The epoxy paint seems pretty tough!  I slid the deep freeze across the floor to get it back where it belongs.  It’s usually a pretty big PITA to move around, because there are no slides or even feet on the bottom – just bumps in the sheet metal on the bottom.  It left a trail of light gray that just wiped -ff — I think it was just concrete dust from previous moves, maybe with a little appliance paint.  No damage to the floor, other than knocking off a few of the decorative flakes.  After a quick swipe with a damp rag, you can’t tell where the drag marks were.  I don’t know if I mentioned it in my previous posts, but after MUCH research I decided to just go with the Rust-Oleum epoxy garage floor paint.  It was readily available (Home Depot had it on the shelf) and not as expensive as the other options I was looking at — which means, if it starts coming up in a few years I haven’t spent $2500 on the floor like one of my neighbors.  Yes, his does look better and he had other people do the work…  but hey, I’ll spend some time and effort to move a decimal point!  I figure I have spent well under $400 on this, including the grinder rental and painting supplies.

I wanted to have a utility sink installed, but the quote from the plumber to do just the bare minimum work so I could do all of the actual installation and drywall work…  well, it was simply insane.  I guess we’ll run a hose from the laundry room when we need water out there.

Siemens Gigaset S675IP, followup

We’ve been using the Gigaset phones for several months now, so i thought I’d post a followup with the longer term impressions.

It’s not all bad news.  Voice quality on intercom, landline and VoIP calls is very good.  The battery life of the handsets is really good; you can leave them out of the charger for days on end and still use them for calls.  Some of the features are pretty cool, like being able to assign custom pictures and ring tones to individual callers.  I’d like a little louder speaker phone, but it’s not too bad.  We have never used the Bluetooth connectivity, so I can’t say how well that works.  Range seems to be pretty good for a cordless; I can wander out and check the mail without losing the signal.  And, it’s really nice to be able to have to people on two different calls at the same time.

Drawbacks — I really still do miss the ability to quickly and easily just join a call in progress, like you would with any other home phone system I have ever seen.  If someone calls and you want two people on the call you have to use the intercom and conference feature.  Apparently the non-VoIP version of the phones (SL785) does this, but the S675IP is inexplicably different.

The answering machine has been a disaster.  For whatever reason it will randomly start refusing to play a message, giving you several minutes of static and noise instead.  You can’t delete the messages without either a complete reset of the base unit, or listening for several minutes until it finally stops.  I finally just stopped using the answering machine and use Asterisk voicemail instead.

There is NO way to back up the settings on the base unit;  if you ever have to reset it, be prepared to completely set everything up from scratch.  This shortcoming is about the most brain-damaged thing I have ever seen in a consumer product.

In general, I would describe this as a system with a lot of potential — ruined by a vendor that just doesn’t care.  The firmware and web interface are a virtual roach motel of bugs, and Siemens appears to have completely abandoned any attempts to fix anything.  As a result, you’ve just got to work around the nastier flaws.  Contacting tech support is largely a waste of time; the droids there have no idea how to do anything other than quote passages from the manual, and apparently their command of the English language is somewhat limited.  They seemed to be unable to comprehend things like the difference between backing up the dialing directory from a specific handset (not too hard) and the configuration of the base unit (simply not possible).

I would honestly not recommend this to anyone.  It looks really nice, and has some pretty nice features, but it’s just not “finished” — and never will be.  I’m tempted to switch over to the more friendly SL785 base unit, and just use Asterisk for all off the more advanced features.  That would though, mean giving up the ability to make multiple simultaneous calls.