Archive for the “Gadgets” Category

The obvious quote is “Please, sir, I want some more.” However perhaps more apposite is another from the same book: “Some people are nobody’s enemies but their own.” A year ago, we moved from Santa Clara to our new apartment in downtown San Jose. We’d been using an old DOCSIS 2.0 cable modem together with an Apple Airport Extreme for Internet service, and for various reasons it hadn’t been very satisfactory. When we arrived in San Jose, I decided to replace them with an all-in-one solution: a DOCSIS 3.0 modem with built-in Wi-Fi router from Netgear.

For the last 12 months we’ve put up with the consequences of this misguided attempt at simplification:

  • My company VPN keeps dropping the connection, requiring a tedious security scan while it re-establishes the session.
  • Video and audio through WebEx (our standard collaboration tool) is so unpredictable that I usually arrange for a call-back to my cellphone.
  • While watching a movie on Netflix we can expect at least a dozen shifts between different video quality levels as the streaming codecs try to compensate for bandwidth and jitter.
  • Elder Scrolls Online is… challenging.
  • Speed tests routinely showed less than 15Mb down, which is a lot less than we’re paying for. (I’d love a good long-term jitter measurement tool…)

A couple of days ago I (again!) started poking around the net looking for solutions. This time, I discovered that a number of other Netgear users had experienced similar problems, particularly with VPN access. Moreover the consensus was now pretty overwhelming: all-in-one solutions are just too inflexible. So today I replaced the C3700 with a $99 Arris SB6141 – a simple, no-frills DOCSIS 3.0 modem; no Wi-Fi, no GbE switch. (OK, it does have efficient channel bonding (8 downstream, 4 upstream), but hopefully that will be completely transparent.) After calling Comcast to provision the new modem, I dusted off the old Airport Extreme and plugged it in. And then I ran a speed test.

66Mb down, 12Mb up.

Not South Korean speeds, or Google Fiber, but a lot better than I’d been used to. And this setup should be able to handle the 150Mb upgrade that Comcast is trying to tempt me with. In the meantime, it’s going to take a few days of testing – particularly streaming video during peak hours – to see if this kind of performance is sustainable. Fingers crossed…

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Yesterday I bought myself a Google Nexus 5 phone to replace my iPhone 5C. Although I’m a rock solid Mac user – I couldn’t imagine trying to live with either Windows or Linux on my desktop – I find myself drifting away from the iOS world. In the last year, for example, I’ve used my Kindle Fire tablet far more often than my iPad. But the main thing provoking the switch is that I really want to increase my use of my Google Glass. Restrictions in iOS (especially the inability of user apps to route IP traffic between BlueTooth, WiFi and LTE), coupled with the flakiness of the iOS Mobile Hotspot feature, mean that Glass simply works better with an Android phone. (And before you say, “but of course”, the changes that have affected interoperability have all come from Apple.)

Now I’ve tried this Android switch once before, and it was not a pleasant experience.In August 2011, I acquired an AT&T Samsung Infuse. It was big, fast and gorgeous, as I wrote here. But my infatuation soon wore off. The problems were many: overheating, bloatware, lockups, buggy software, the failure of AT&T and Samsung to keep the software up to date, and a handful of incredibly annoying “features” with no workaround. (Posting a notification when the phone was fully charged – often in the middle of the night – was the most asinine.)

So that experiment lasted less than 6 months, and then I returned to the walled garden. So this time I’m trying to be smarter about it. By choosing Google’s own Nexus, I can be (pretty) sure that I’ll always have up-to-date software. And I know where they live….

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I few weeks ago I started work at Vyatta, which had been recently acquired by Brocade. On my first day, I was handed a Brocade corporate laptop. It’s a Dell: 13″ screen, 4GB, 128GB SSD, Windows 7. As corporate laptops go, it’s perfectly nice, but I’ve been a Mac user for many years now, and Windows Just. Feels. Wrong. The first time I tried to send a reply to a meeting invitation in Outlook and found that I couldn’t navigate back to look at another email message, I realized that (a) Outlook still had many of the bugs we first encountered 15 years ago, and (b) I was damned if I was going to use that crap to run my work.

As I wandered around Vyatta and Brocade, I noticed many MacBooks in use. Apparently many others felt the same way that I did. As an experiment, I configured my personal MacBook Air as a work machine – (guest) wireless network, Exchange, Lync for IM, Office, etc. – and apart from a few corporate functions it all seemed to work just fine. However, as a matter of policy I don’t want to mix work and personal stuff – certificates, passwords, email, browser settings – on one machine. So I’m planning to go out and get myself a MacBook for dedicated work use, and I would like some help in making the choice. (And yes, I’ll keep the Dell laptop, chained to my desk, for those occasions when I need to log in to Oracle or other corporate systems.)

Weight is important. Today I love my 11-inch MacBook Air: it’s as light as a feather. On the other hand, putting together a complicated PowerPoint or Keynote presentation is challenging on such a small screen. And power is also important: I want enough RAM and CPU to run DevStack or CloudStack under VirtualBox. And of course I don’t want to spend too much…

So the choices seem to be:

  • MacBook Air: 13-inch screen, 2.0GHz Dual Core i7, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, 2.96 lbs. – $1,599
  • MacBook Pro: 13-inch Retina screen, 2.9GHz Dual Core i7, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD, 3.57 lbs. – $1,699
  • MacBook Pro: 15-inch Retina screen, 2.4GHz Quad Core i7, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, 4.46 lbs. – $2,199

There are pros and cons for each. Reviews are all over the map. Thoughts?

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I’m pretty much out of ports on my TV. I’ve got a Motorola set-top box/DVR from ComcastXfinity (a crappy early model with hardly any disk space), a PlayStation 3, an Apple TV, and a Roku 2XS. I need the ATV for AirPlay from my iPad or MacBook Air, plus YouTube; I need the Roku because I watch a lot of Amazon streaming video. I can get Netflix and Hulu on any of the devices. For recent pay-per-view movies, I prefer Amazon to the alternatives (Comcast or Apple), simply because of price and variety. I’d love to dump one of these devices, which would have to be the Roku, but that would mean using the PS3 for Amazon Video, and the PS3 UI is utter crap.

So I’m stuck with this device setup. Unfortunately the Roku 2XS has been a disaster. I bought it 18 months ago to replace an original Roku which had fried, and it’s always been glitchy. It becomes catatonic about once a week, requiring a power cycle to fix it. But this evening the power cycle failed to produce the normal startup screen of bouncing purple letters. I unplugged and replugged it a couple of times, then tried a factory reset by sticking a paperclip in the “reset” hole for the officially-recommended 15 seconds (and then some). Nothing.

In frustration I grabbed my MBA and started to browse reviews on, looking for alternatives to the Roku. About 15 minutes later, the Roku 2XS suddenly came to life, and displayed a white (not purple) logo. I re-paired the remote, configured the Roku and all of my services (really strong passwords are great until you have to enter them repeatedly using an on-screen keyboard!), and I was back in business.

That weird 15 minute delay suggests to me that the Roku 2XS has some kind of hardware problem, probably heat-sensitive. Since it only has a 90-day warranty (what kind of nonsense is that?), I’m going to have to replace it. I wish I could find another device which would do the job, but I guess I’ll be going for a Roku 3. Hopefully we’ll be getting an official YouTube app for it soon.

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Yesterday I finally had enough. I headed over to the local AT&T store, indulged myself in a mild rant about the POS (Samsung Infuse) that they’d sold me last summer, and then paid through the nose to upgrade it early to an iPhone 4S. Since I don’t intend to replace this one any time soon, I went for the top-of-the-line: a 64GB white one. Did I really need that? Well, when I replaced my iPad with an iPad 2, I opted for a 32GB rather than 64GB, and I’ve been running into space constraints ever since. So 64GB seemed safer.

Anyone want to buy a Samsung Infuse 4G in good condition, complete with desktop cradle? You’ll need to root and flash it to make it usable, of course….

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Well, 2011 has given way to the New Year, and AT&T have failed to fulfill their promise to upgrade the Android software on all of the 4G phones which they sold in 2011. Back in the summer I embarked on an experiment to see what life outside Apple’s walled garden would be like. The results are in: it sucks. Battery life is awful, system freezes are common (often with the phone feeling dangerously hot), and app management is broken (somehow I have acquired two copies of several apps). I could go on, but why bother?

The main takeaway from this is that Samsung and AT&T (and probably other carriers and manufacturers) haven’t understood that Apple changed the rules with the iPhone, by bringing the PC (and Mac) upgrade model to mobile communications. Backward compatibility is mandatory. Software and hardware upgrades are decoupled. Bugs are fixed. OS and app features are delivered regularly. I’m sure Google hoped that the Android ecosystem would follow this path, but if so they’ve completely failed to convince their partners.

So what to do next? Yes, of course I can root the device, find and install a ROM image of unknown provenance, etc. But I resent the need to do this*, and I’m distinctly uncomfortable doing so on a device which is used for corporate communications. I could dump the Infuse and buy an iPhone 4S, but after only 6 months on the contract it’s a relatively expensive proposition. And the final insult is that most of the tools for hacking Android phones seem to be Windows based, and I don’t have any Windows machines lying around.

File under #FAIL.

* And that’s assuming that I don’t inadvertently brick the device. For those who haven’t explored this stuff, here’s the simple version of the instructions for a popular ROM:

  • Ensure you have both root and CWM. See the reference post if you do not have both of these.
  • Copy ROM .ZIP to SD card
  • Shut phone off. Hold Vol Up + Vol Down and Power on device
  • Wipe Data and Cache (Wiping data will remove your installed applications and settings. You have been warned!)
  • Flash CM7 zip
  • Reboot. You will get stuck at Samsung screen. This is normal.
  • Pull battery, and reboot into recovery (Hold: VOL+ VOL- Power)
  • You should now be in ORANGE -OR- BLUE CWM
  • Go to “mounts and storage”
  • Select format /system
  • Reflash CM7 zip
  • Don’t forget Google Apps as well. You can get the gapps easily using Rom Manger -> Download ROM -> Scroll down to Google Apps). Google Apps download link is also at the bottom of this post
  • Reboot into CM7 goodness, made possible by LinuxBozo

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I got my Kindle Fire yesterday, unboxed it, and… I was horribly disappointed. The out-of-the-box experience was awful: slow, inconsistent, stuff timing out, difficulty connecting to the network. I put it aside, because I had a busy work schedule. This morning I picked it up again. Still unusable. I checked the online help resources, FAQs… nothing.

I contemplated returning it.

Then deep in the bowels of the Kindle discussion groups I came upon this thread. So I started to play around with my wireless access point. I use an Apple Airport Extreme (APX), with an Airport Express as an extender. There are lots of devices connected to this network – at least a dozen (PCs, Macs, tablets, phones…) – and they all work flawlessly. I’d configured the APX WiFi as “Radio: Automatic”. I switched it to “Radio: 802.11a/n – 802.11b/g”. Instantly the Kindle Fire started working properly.

I still need to run a few tests to see if this change has any negative impact on the rest of my network, but right now I’m happy to have a usable Kindle Fire

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My HP TouchPad has finally arrived.

It looks beautiful. (Of course, it looks like every other black rectangular tablet with rounded corners – are Apple’s lawyers listening?)

Unfortunately, I can’t set up email on it. My IMAP configuration for, which works on my MacOS, iOS, Android, and various other clients, won’t work in webOS.

I’m working my way through configuring the rest of the settings and downloading a minimal set of apps. For some reason, the settings for each subsystem are handled in an individual “settings” application. This is remarkably tedious.

More anon.

UPDATE: Thanks to Steve, I got email working by installing a new certificate on the TouchPad. Like most of the apps, it’s visually appealing but relatively inefficient in its use of screen real estate. (Users of recent releases of Skype will empathize with this.)

A few more observations:

  • Registering clicks in the browser seems hit-or-miss. Navigating something like Google Reader or the “Manage your Kindle” page at Amazon is frustrating.
  • Speaking of Kindle, the TouchPad Kindle app is visually appealing but remarkably fragile. Whenever I navigate away from that app for more than a few seconds, I get a popup informing me that the Kindle app has crashed. Yes, I know it’s marked as “Beta”, and it’s unlikely that a non-beta version will ever be released, but even so…
  • In order to install the new SSL certificate, I had to connect the TouchPad to my iMac via USB. From the Finder, it looked as if I was simply attaching an external USB storage device. However when I tried to eject the device, Finder reported it was busy. I did a “Force Eject” anyway, and when I next looked at the TouchPad I found that hundreds of JPEGs from my Pictures folder had been copied to the device. my Facebook account had been downloaded to the TouchPad. Strange…

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Tim Bray just posted a nice blog piece about his new phone: a pre-production Nexus Galaxy running Android 4.0 (code-named “Ice Cream Sandwich”). There are some really nice features in this release, which is, of course, what we’ve come to expect. These days, competition in many markets is driven by features, and less attention is given to price, performance, quality, and customer service.

But will I ever get to use these features? Here’s the comment I posted on Tim’s piece:

Yes, Tim, it all looks very nice. But I’m still waiting for AT&T to get around to updating my Samsung Infuse 4G from Froyo to Gingerbread (promised in August, already shipping in Canada). I have no idea if AT&T and Samsung will ever put Ice Cream Sandwich on the Infuse, let alone when. I read your account of the new features, but I have no idea whether it’s relevant to me.

For me, this is the biggest bug in the Android business model compared with iOS: it’s completely unpredictable. All of the players – Google, handset makers and carriers – contribute to the mess. And so I’m not surprised that so many apps are so unstable: the test matrix is ridiculously big.

In contrast, when an iOS release comes out, I know exactly what it will run on, and which features will be available on my device. Moreover I can install it immediately.

This summer, I decided to try life outside the “walled garden” and replaced my iPhone 4 with the best Android device then available. I have to report that so far, life outside the wall sucks. This is a shame. I guess I could hack it, but great products shouldn’t need hacking….

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Wall Street and even some Apple fanbois were disappointed that Apple chose to release a minor upgrade to the iPhone 4 rather than a kick-ass, “this changes everything” iPhone 5. But I was delighted. Let me explain.

A few months ago, I decided to see what life was like on the other side of the “garden wall“, and I replaced my iPhone 4 with a Samsung Infuse 4G. Thin, big gorgeous screen, powerful CPU, bags of memory, the latest Android OS, and “4G networking” (whatever AT&T meant by that – certainly not LTE): I was determined to test “the best of the rest”.

Unfortunately, it has not been a great experience. The startup logo from AT&T exhorts me to “Rethink Possible”, and I have done so: I realize that it is possible that someone could create a crap product and try to compete with Apple.

What came I say about this puppy? (This is not a compliment: I’m not a dog person.) The battery life sucks. I’m lucky to get through 8 hours before the warning messages start appearing. OK, I’m syncing both IMAP and Exchange email in the background, but I’m usually in range of a WiFi AP. Often, I’ll take the phone out of my belt holster and it will be hot, as though it’s been running some CPU-intensive app, but Task Manager shows nothing running. Even so, the power just melts away. I’ve tried many of the apps that have been created to deal with this weakness of Android (and that should tell you something right there!), but nothing helps.

So of course I charge it whenever I get the chance, and at night I put it in a cradle next to my bed, with an alarm set. Unfortunately the phone insists on waking up, beeping, and turning on the screen when recharging is complete – usually at 3AM. This does not endear it to me or my loved ones.

There are lots of other annoying glitches, some of which are still mysterious. There is some package – not an app: no apps are running – which will occasionally vibrate the phone. If I power cycle the phone, it goes away. Because I receive corporate email on the phone, I’ve configured it to require a passcode to unlock it. However whether I have to unlock or simply swipe seems totally random.

But the most infuriating problem is the random hangs. I get one or two a week, and I usually have to power-cycle the phone by holding down the power button. Sometimes that doesn’t work, and I have to resort to sliding off the back case and popping out the battery. This evening, I encountered a new problem. I was riding on the Green Line under Boston streets; I fired up the Amazon Kindle app, and everything froze. I power-cycled the phone, and when it came back most of my apps were unavailable. Touching the generic icon produced the bizarre message that the app was not installed. Eventually I left the subway system, powered the phone off and on, and everything came up OK. From browsing similar accounts on the web, it looks as if Android needs to sync with MarketPlace on powerup. This is, obviously, absurd.

Yesterday I was just about ready to give up on this piece of crap, buy a new iPhone 5, and swallow my pride (and the penalty for early upgrade). But Apple came to my rescue by releasing the iPhone 4S, which is not quite compelling enough to make me switch back. Yet. So I’ll wait until I’m eligible for a penalty-free upgrade in January, 2013 (sigh!), or whenever the iPhone 5 actually appears. Thank you, Apple!

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