Steam Controller

The visible and eminently tactile part of the Steam hardware experience is the controller. Steam took a leap and designed something significantly different from the standard twin stick/d-pad “standard”.
The fundamental reason for doing this is that Valve is designing a controller for their platform and not for a subset of games that are already suited for controllers. This is a tall order, and needs to take in FPS games, adventure games, strategy, racing, and everything in between. And it kinda almost works.

I tested a few games to see how it worked.

It’s easiest, though perhaps unfair, to compare to the well known (and loved) Xbox 360 controller.

The Steam Controller has an overall totally new tilt. It is designed so that your thumbs are in place to float over the touchpads, instead of the A/B/X/Y buttons. The shape is more concave than convex, like virtually all other gamepads. The grips of the controller sit nestled in towards the palm/heel of your hand.

Out of the box, the controller feels rather light, when you add the batteries it feels better, more balanced.  It is still lighter than most gamepads, but probably partly because of the different style of haptic feedback,rather than weighted “rumble” motors.

Since the touchpad is central to the operation, the buttons have been bumped down and to the left. Unfortunately this requires a reach, instead of them being instantly available, and locatable by touch. Another side-effect is that the bottom left edge of the touchpad is a dead zone to prevent hitting there when you use the B or Y buttons.

There is no D-pad at all, though the left side can work as one. Since it is a touchpad, though, you can slide up and down (for things like mouse wheel actions), amongst it’s many configurable layouts. This offers a lot more ability, if a little finicky. Both touch pads can be clicked.

The trigger buttons are analog with two “steps” of pull. You can half-pull them for one action and pull all the way to perform another (there is a slight click). There are digital shoulder buttons above that, and a wonderful “squeeze” button under your middle and ring fingers.

Above all of that, there is apparently a gyro inside (motion/tilt tracking, not the delicious Greek food). To wrap all of that up, there is naturally a clickable analog left thumb stick, as well as a few ancillary buttons.

The most powerful part is the software. Without any third-party add-on drivers or utilities you can make extremely fine customizations to the functions of every control, from mouse-vs-joystick type controls, to haptic feedback, to sensitivity. You can configure an outer ring for each trackpad to a different function. You can use a key as a mode switch, to double the number of commands. It is certainly possible to program the controller to handle all but the most complicated and confusing keyboard and mouse scenarios.

You can set up a configuration for each game (and download community-created ones too), and one “Desktop configuration” that can be used to make the controller a general purpose input device, so you can play games without running through Steam. That being said, I haven’t figured out a suitable Minecraft setup yet, and yes that makes me sad.

With that ability comes the caveat. You will need to customize it. You will need to spend time playing with the settings instead of playing with the games. By now, thanks to the preorder and early release, there are the above-mentioned community-provided profiles for pretty much any game. It’s easy to pick one that looks reasonably familiar and tweak it from there.

Nevertheless, it is a totally new design of a controller. You can only pick it up and be instantly familiar with it for some games here and there, maybe like some racing games, platformers and so on, but anything else needs you to relearn what a controller feels like and can do. It will take some time. F1 2013 was instantly comfortable, Portal Stories: Mel took a little getting used to, some various RTS games were and still are a big challenge for me.  Tomb Raider Anniversary was tremendous.

I think it has a lot of promise, and I am still not totally comfortable with it. Valve can easily influence game authors and publishers to build controller support in to the games, and in fact they may already have done so.

We as gamers are not totally strangers to innovation, but maybe we usually expect it from Nintendo. PC gamers are perhaps more locked in to their keyboard and mouse mindset, but this controller is definitely not designed to completely displace the desktop input devices.  Will it displace traditional gamepads?  Time will tell.  Perhaps version 2 or 3 will be even more devastating to them.

Bottom line is, there’s a entirely new niche of game controllers that has been created, and it is currently occupied solely by the Steam controller.  It can control all of your Steam games, and that’s a pretty impressive resume.

AppleTV Updated

Finally, Apple decided to update the AppleTV – and promote it to the product menu bar on the main site!  This common, and popular, device had been overlooked for four years!

The changes are exactly what I was wishing for… but somehow not enough.  The main thing I wanted was apps.  It seemed kinda dumb that an iOS device (the previous AppleTV was running iOS 5) couldn’t run apps.

The internals have been improved significantly to support the load that modern apps will certainly give to the hardware.  An A8 processor (mostly the same in the iPad Air 2, with a different GPU), 2GB RAM, and 32-64GB flash storage.  Bluetooth 4.0 and WiFi 802.11 ac (along with the other letters).

But Apple has never been strictly about the internals.  You shouldn’t need to know exact RAM numbers to know how the experience will be 1.  Apple has always been about the experience, even if it causes the device to be a little more expensive.

So what is the experience?  Well, the existing AppleTV experience is a gimme.  It was already very good and uniquely seamless… playing iTunes content and receiving AirPlay streams is a very satisfying experience.  The downside?  The doors were closed to anything else.  So now with apps, the experience gets much wider.  Plex is better than iTunes.  2  TuneIn Radio would be nice to have on the same box.  And then there’s games!

<record scratch>. 3

Of course there’s going to be games, when people talk about the App Store for iOS, their first thought is GAMES.  But, the App Store games have been unique beasts until now.  Odd games with ridiculously simple controls and brief (seconds to minutes) of typical game time.  Games like Threes, Angry Birds and Plants Vs. Zombies really worked on a portable, touchscreen, battery-powered handheld that you had with you anyway.  Put it on a screen with three other bored family members watching and it won’t work.

The games have to change nature, obviously.  When you fire up a game in the living room, you do so with hours, not minutes in mind.  Solo games are still fine, of course (they already succeed on the consoles, so that proves that).  But the AppleTV as a gaming device is going into the arena with a handful of potential games worth playing.  I too loved the demo of Crossy Road, it looked great… but I think I would only play it on the big screen for 10 minutes.  The Apple ad highlighted Asphalt 8, and there’s also Real Racing 3, another graphics-beautiful game that lends itself wonderfully to the controller.  And with the In-App Purchases you can…

<record scratch>.  <audience gasp>. <crickets>. 4

I bought Real Racing 2.  It was fun, if a bit unrealistic.  It was self-contained and cost money up front.  Real Racing 3 came out, and was mostly improved except it’s now Freemium… so you can play for free as long as you stop playing every few races to let it recharge.  Stop.  Playing.  Tell me if that’s going to work when you’re on the couch with a cool drink and controller in hand.  I know, there are about 1% of the players that actually pay for cubits or gemoids or coinules or whatever they have 5.

The easy(tm) solution is to charge more for the games.  I’m actually fine with that, as I’d pay $5-$10 for a really good game.  That would be kinda the upper limit, the reason for which will I will explain shortly.  So maybe that will happen.  I’m actually pretty certain(tm) that it will, actually, though I think the prices will balance out at a little more around $10-$20.

Now back to the hardware.  It has the grunt to drive these games, but there are two significant problems that stand out right away.

First, controller support is restricted to MFi controllers, so those awesome and cheap USB controllers you already have (like the ubiquitous Xbox 360 controller) cannot be used.  So you can get an AppleTV for $149 plus a controller for $49 more.  $200 USD for an unknown console with a single controller… now that’s not too bad given new console prices.  Except I could pop out today and get a PS3 with 4 really good games (Lego Batman 3 and the Sly Collection) for $219 CDN.  With 500GB of storage.

Which leads me to my next issue.  There are only two levels of storage differentiating the $149 and $199 models Is 32GB enough, or is 64GB enough?  Right now very few know.  A high-end iOS game at the moment might push 2GB, or possibly more, but recently released developer information explains that apps for the AppleTV can only reserve 200 megabytes of persistent storage each.  They can download and cache a whole lot more than that, apparently, but given memory pressure (i.e. lots of different apps, not just games) using that cache, it will be dumped and you will have to redownload it.  So the snappy performance of the device when you first set it up will probably fade.  In practice, maybe you don’t notice this much, since you’d have to run a lot of different apps to create the memory pressure required to dump the cache of one.  Most people would focus around 4 or 5 apps each.  Unless of course you’re a family.

Oh… yeah, that 6.

It would be easy to compare this to the Xbox One, because it does much of what the Apple TV promises, without the Apple integration, of course… but it’s expensive, so I won’t do that.

Let’s go back briefly to the pricing of games…  It seems to me the big competitor they’ve just walked into the ring with is Valve.  Steam sales are ridiculous.  It’s not unusual to get a significant and excellent game on Steam for under $5.  Steam games are often cheaper than their iOS ports.  But, PC games and consoles are very different things.  The other key is the Steam Link hardware that is coming out next month.  A $59 CDN box will stream your PC/Mac games to your big screen.  It supports Xbox 360 controllers as well as a few others, and they are releasing a new $59 (CDN) controller as well, that is looking promising.  So for games, it’s $119 for a game plus controller, and a TON of cheap, high-quality games.  And an online store that works really well.  It will also stream your music if you really need to (MP3 only).  Maybe movies will come soon, who knows.  While it’s true it’s a streaming-only device, and you need your computer on… AppleTV is mostly the same for movies and music.  (Yes I know about iCloud)

I think the real potential competitor to the new AppleTV is the old AppleTV + Steam Link.  $89 + $59 = $148 CDN beats $149 US by a fair margin.  Enough to throw in a controller, if you really really don’t have one.

Comparing unreleased, unknown products is often an exercise in madness.  But at least my madness is well exercised.  I think we’ll know how this all shakes out in about a year.  Mark this down.

  1.  Quick, tell me how much RAM a PS3 has!  Whether you know that number or not, you realize it doesn’t matter as much as it would on a desktop
  2. There.  I said it.
  3. For the younger set, you might have to Google this
  4. You have to add your own sound effects here.  Work with me, people.
  5. For the older set, don’t bother Googling these
  6. Won’t someone think of the poor RECORDS?

My Keyboard Journey

As a professional developer, I spend a lot of time with my hands on a keyboard.

Many many years ago, I was privileged to use an IBM Model M keyboard.  I really enjoyed it, but trends changed.  Microsoft came out with a fancy looking ergonomic keyboard and I had the chance to try it out.  I liked the shape, but the keys – especially the space bar – were rather unpleasant.  So, I went back to the Model M.  I even managed to pick up a “space saver” TKL (“ten key” less) version, which is designed more for server racks

MS ergonomic keyboard
MS Natural Ergonomic 4000

Over time, though, I just used whatever was attached.  My jobs at the time just had a bundled Compaq or Dell keyboard and I just used it.  Unless they keyboard was really terrible, I managed and didn’t make a fuss.  When I started working for myself, I tried out a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000.  They had come a LONG way since the first one, the key feel was much better.

After a little while, I switched to a Mac.  The Apple keyboards are actually pretty good, better than most, but they just don’t have much key travel, this is the nature of their low-profile design.  I plugged in my Microsoft Ergonomic again.  I decided I liked it enough to even get a second one after the first one wore out.

IBM Model M
Two words: awesome.

All of this time, I still had my Model M.  It stayed with me through about 5 moves, stuck in a closet, still has the exceptionally long PS/2 cable (still coiled up, it’s probably 10′ long).  It’s heavy, it’s fairly loud.  It uses “buckling springs” under the keys that gives a unique progressive resistance and feedback.

I never had any problems with my hands and wrists with this keyboard.  I figured it must give your hands enough strength to keep healthy, or something like that.  But, it was PS/2.  So it limited my opportunities to use it.

I started wondering if I could get a better keyboard, a mechanical keyboard rather than a membrane keyboard.  This is the only way to get really good feedback from each key.  Unfortunately, cheap keyboards are so popular because they’re, you know, cheap.  A good keyboard starts to cost something.  I thought about it though, and realized I would pay a fair bit for a really good mouse but for some reason always cheaped out on a keyboard that I use much more… so… I set myself a slightly higher budget and started to search.

It seems like most of the focus these days for these higher-end keyboards is on gamers.  One main feature is called n-key rollover, so you can hit a whole bunch of keys and have them all register.  (Here’s a test to try your own keyboard: hold down both shift keys and try to type “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”.  Yes, this is challenging.  If you don’t have a similar feature, you may be dismayed to see many letters missing).

There are a number of flavours of key switches, mostly from the Cherry company, they are identified by a color, such as black, blue, red, etc.  It’s very hard to know what kind you want, because very rarely are these keyboards available to try in stores!  I managed to find one or two, and gave it the swat test, and did not like it at all.  (It seems like the one I tried were the blue variety).

Other features are cool, but not that necessary for work, like LED backlighting.  I didn’t need to see this feature, though it would be cool.

My new keyboard
My new keyboard

I finally found in a review a reference to the Matias tactile keyboards.  I checked them out and it sounded really good.  I wasn’t worried too much about the volume, though I heard the Tactile Pro described as “antisocially loud”.  They also made one called the Quiet Pro, though, and I thought that only offered advantages over the non-quiet version.  They had a Mac version!  If the caption didn’t give it away, I got it, and I’m using it right now.  It’s really really good!  It’s really easy to get used to typing on one of these, so that when you go back to a cheap keyboard it feels jarringly wrong.

At the same time, though, I found a wonderful project online called something like TMK which is an open source driver/converter for older keyboards.  With Teensy (or a few flavours of Arduino) you can convert a PS/2 keyboard to USB and add a ton of really cool features to it at the same time.

What this means is… I realized my Model M can come back to life!  I have most of the parts and at least one more on order, but I will build this very soon.  I will report when I get it running.  I will have my choice of great mechanical keyboards, well, at my fingertips.

iDon’tCloud

The recent update of iOS and OS X brought along Apple’s new cash grab photo organizing scheme framework.  To be honest though, it is very slick.  It makes photo storage and access very secure and ubiquitous.  You don’t need to worry about where your photos are and you (probably) don’t need to worry about having space on your devices.  Like Apple’s typical catchphrase, “it just works”.  It kinda represents the ideal of cloud storage – you don’t know or care where it is, but it follows you everywhere and rains your data down whenever you want it.  Also it obscures the sun.  And makes visibility at higher altitudes a bit of a challenge.

Hold on, those last two might not fit in to the desired description.  Just leave them off for now.

Except this convenience is gonna cost you.  iCloud storage prices have come down, but they are still a little on the pricy side.  The lowest end (20GB) is $1 a month, and perfect for the security and convenience of cloud-based iOS device backup.  After that though, competitors start to look a little nicer in the price & capacity range.  Both Amazon and Microsoft have decently-priced tiers that provide unlimited space.

So with the constraints of iCloud storage, they introduced their new Photos app.  (It’s not bad, but it’s no Aperture).  I tried importing and uploading my photos, but as you guessed it, I ran out of space.  I have about 10,000 photos, which is a lot but not a lot a lot, you know…  Now, iCloud Photos is by no means required to use Photos.app, but having lost photos a few times to hard drive deaths, I decided I need some sort of cloud backup.  It would also be nice to save on the limited SSD space of our MacBook Air by keeping those photos primarily in the cloud.  But iCloud wasn’t it.

Enter Flickr

Flik
No not him, another one. Certainly © Disney.

I signed up for Flickr quite a while ago, although at the time it wasn’t really anything that compelling.  Then Marissa Meyer came along and kicked Flickr into the spotlight by giving 1TB away for free.  I instantly became a fan, yet I didn’t use it as much as I’d like.  There was a hurdle.  I could auto-upload from the iOS app, and that was wonderfully seamless (I was pleasantly surprised that many of my photos were up there already).  The hurdle, however, is the desktop.  When you import photos using a card or plugging your camera in… or you do some editing, then what?  I have a couple of plugins that allow you to upload to Flickr, and they work pretty good, but it’s a single-photo manual process… subject to my easily distracted mind (ooo something shiny!)

A few days ago, though, they came out with v4.0 of the iOS app.  I heard some raving about it, but the previous iOS app was already very very good.  Then I looked into the web – and more importantly – the Uploadr.  This is an agent that sits on your computer and does what it says.  It monitors your photo libraries and selected folders and uploads them to your Flickr account.  It deduplicates too, so you won’t have multiple unnecessary copies.

The web now has a camera roll that lets you do bulk operations like batch delete  (oops, I uploaded a screenshot folder) or album management.  It’s a little clumsy at the moment, since it falls back to the old interface in a few places, but already it’s very welcome.

Is it a complete “just works” solution like iCloud?  Almost, but not yet.

The one thing that is missing is the elimination or reduction of local libraries.  It would be nice to have an app that could access your hosted library, and optionally cache locally some full-resolution images, so you get the benefits of both cloud and local photo libraries.

Kinda like iCloud Photos.  Only affordable.

Clone a Clone

So I had yet another WD MyBook die on me a couple of days ago.  And I still went out and bought another one (what was Einstein’s definition of insanity, again?)… This one was only two years old but these things are still quite cheap and very convenient to get.  Maybe someday when I have more money I will get a proper NAS enclosure.  For now, my pattern is to buy a new one every year.  They’ve almost doubled in size every time, so I can just clone everything to the new one and go from there.

Since I had such great experience with my WD MyBook Live, I decided to get the next version, a MyCloud.  This is slightly improved, similar in appearance, also with a GB network port but this one also has a USB 3.0 host on it, so I can buy another, regular drive next and slave it off of this one.

My previous scheme didn’t seem to work well with this one, though.  I was unable to make an unattended rsync to push from that drive to this one because these drives are set up to use root as the ssh user, and it’s not set up to use PermitRootLogin without-password .  It always seems to prompt for the password, which won’t work when AFK.

Until I figure that one out, I looked for another solution.  The coolest discovery was that these drives are actually running Debian.  After some research I found out that lftp will mirror a remote directory over FTP.  Of course, lftp is not installed on these drives, however, after running…

I had them installed (on both the 2012 and 2015 vintage drives).

Next was the task of setting them up!  I found a good post on StackExchange (well, ServerFault) here that helped a lot.  I ended up using this:

With that I had some options I could use by uncommenting DELETE or TESTMODE, for example.  One additional gotcha is that it doesn’t retain the source’s ownership, but since this is such a basic setup, I just chown all the files in the LCD variable to my username.

The password for that user is in cleartext, in the file.  If you are not comfortable with that, do not use this.

It still doesn’t seem to be running in cron yet, but I need time to experiment some more.  I still much prefer the SSH method but I want to get it working reliably and repeatably.  I need to reimplement much of this each time the firmware gets updated, and copying a few files is much better than having to edit sshd config files each time.

Swype and iOS keyboards

I have experimented with replacement keyboards on Android from time to time.  Though I had SwiftKey installed for a year, I mostly used it as a regular keyboard.

So it wasn’t a real thrill for me when Apple announced third-party keyboards on iOS 8.   I found the iOS keyboard quite good, the design was really good and led to fast and mostly error-free typing.

The problem with most mobile keyboards is text prediction – autocorrect can never get you entirely what you want, and more often than not it was an exercise in frustration.  I didn’t find the iOS 7 predictions too bad, but when iOS 8 came out with QuickType, something happened.  It seemed like the autocorrect was much more aggressive, and more often frustratingly wrong.  So I started looking into third-party keyboards.

Fleksy was my first look, because it was free at release – it is not a huge leap for a new user to start using this keyboard, the keys are in the same spot and you just tap to enter letters.  However, this keyboard relies heavily on prediction.  Most of the time it does really well, but when it gets it wrong, you need to remember and perform a gesture to “unfix” it, or cycle through alternate replacements.  I found this more cumbersome than just using the iOS keyboard and being alert.

SwiftKey was free, and I liked the idea of gesture-based scribble-typing.  I had used it before, so it should be a simple switch, right?  Well, it was, but it still felt very clumsy. Once again, I hadn’t gained anything, it was just different.  I found myself fighting to switch back to the regular iOS keyboard more often.

Now, Swype came to my attention the past day or so, because they made it free.  That’s evidently a great way to get me to try something I am skeptical about.  Well, right away, I was impressed.  Multiple themes, a case-changing keyboard (it shows you the characters in caps when caps is on, etc), nice optional gestures, etc.  Mostly though, I liked the comparatively non-aggressive nature of the text suggestions. When an unusual word comes up, the quick type area allows you to dynamically add the word to your personal dictionary.  The personal dictionary can be edited at any time to remove accidental additions (or those times you were SURE that’s how it was spelled).  It even includes emoji in the autocorrect suggestions!  Just type “smile” and there’s a smiley.   That may seem slower than picking it, but remember you can swipe over the characters in order to kinda sketch out a little scribble that brings a smile to your keyboard, and maybe even to your face.

On top of all that, there’s a special calculator-style numeric keyboard available under the Swype key, if you want to enter numbers more comfortably.

There’s lots going for this keyboard.  Totally worth grabbing for free right now, if the deal is still on, and if not, it still might be a worthwhile investment if it has gone back to its regular 99 cent price.

Pebbled

When the Apple Watch was released, I was highly intrigued. I’m an on-again off-again watch wearer. I tend to lean to analog watches, though, something about the “liquid” display of time is very interesting to me. My last watch was a cool analog Timex chronograph. It had the capability to work as a stopwatch but the display was a little difficult to read.  So, I do like me some extra functionality.

The $349 cost of the Apple timepiece was quite a blow to my hopes, though. I had mentally prepared myself for a $300 top end. Still expensive and I can’t as easily justify it as I could an iPhone or iPad.

But I started to see the value of a smart watch.  I again looked up Pebble, the original smart watch success story.

Is it an Apple Watch replacement? Far from it. It’s plastic where the Apple is Aluminum. It has buttons instead of a digital encoder and touch screen. It’s black and white (e-paper) instead of LED or OLED color (whatever it is). But, it was only $199. At that price though, you were getting less than half of the Apple Watch, it was a hard sell.

But they read the market rather well, and boom, they lowered the price to $99.  Also, boom, I ordered one.  Smart choice on their part?  Well, they gained at least one customer they wouldn’t have otherwise, and I suspect it’s considerably more than just me.  I hope and suspect they can move a lot more volume at this “impulse” level.

So on its own merits, apart from being relatively cheap, what does it have going for it?

Software

First of all, there are some built-in apps, like a few basic watch faces, a music control, notifications wrangler, and alarms.

The firmware development has been fast and furious.  There have been three significant updates (including notifications and emoji, quick launch, background apps, fitness tracking, auto-updates) in the last month (or few weeks?).

Third-party app development looks pretty decent.  You can even write apps in Javascript, using their SDK.  The CPU is respectable, as is the RAM, so there’s no dramatic impact to using Javascript that I can detect.  But.  The hard limitation is 8 apps and watch faces, and it doesn’t matter how big they are.  I do kinda understand in so doing they eliminated the need for their users to know anything about resource-wrangling.  But let’s be frank here, this customer base is made up of geeks.  It sounds like a future version of the firmware will remove this limitation and loosen things up a bit more.

You may notice I said apps and watch faces.  These are two categories of software you can have, apps allow access to the buttons and faces are a little more lightweight and require the accelerometer to allow you to interact.  You can scroll between faces with the right-side up and down buttons.  Apps either require a trip to the menu or assignment to long-presses on the two buttons.

There are a fair number of apps in the store, from fitness trackers (a hot category at the moment), to weather apps, to GPS displays, to Starbucks payment cards.  Oh and timekeepers of course.  Because of the 8-app limit, a few popular apps will bundle several small utility apps into the same executable, and they work fairly well.

Hardware

Perhaps the biggest distinguishing feature of the watch is what they call an e-paper display. This is not to be confused with e-ink, this is really LCD. A low-power, high-reflectivity LCD, so in full daylight the screen is exceptionally visible.  Technically a higher resolution version of what was in my first eBook reader, the Aluratek Libre. Since the power draw is low, the battery life is estimated at about a week. That is very easy to live with, and the big distinguishing feature of the hardware.

There is a potential issue with this display.  If you have polarized glasses, you will especially see dark streaks in it (sometimes without polarized glasses too).  I stick to dark screen displays anyway, so I don’t mind.  When I use polarized sunglasses on my iPhone I notice big color problems anyway so I expect some weirdness anyway.

There are quite a few sensors in the little thing, including accelerometer and compass.
Communication is handled by bluetooth, Bluetooth LE most of the time (Bluetooth 2.1 is used for music control and some more data-intensive processes). This means that a phone or other partner device is required.  Ideally you want something with a data package, but you could certainly get by as long as you didn’t expect to update more connectivity from your watch than your phone will have.  The phone app acts as a proxy (or a bridge) to the Internet.

Implementation

The fact that I need to add another heading here is a good sign. If the device ended at specs it would be another nice geek toy, and that’s all.

Notifications are a big deal.  It is nice not to have to dig out my phone to see what that noise was about… but sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming.  When I get notifications of email, they often come in batches of 6 or 7 (I have my phone only poll every hour or so).  That can be a little annoying to have the flood, especially when they’re triggered by opening the mail app on my phone. I don’t need any notifications when I’m right there!  I suspect this might be a limitation with the way Apple feeds notifications to the Pebble app, though.

The phone app does a nice job of managing installation, removal and configuration of apps. This is important because of the app-limit. Many configurable apps have a modular chunk of code, seemingly pre-installed in the Pebble app to prevent post-review code downloads.  Some of these have obvious jQuery UI front-ends (or worse), which is unfortunate but understandable… Still, the illusion of seamlessness is gone.  As well as it works, it looks hokey. They should have written their own library, or even just an aggressive CSS makeover to enforce an “App Shop” look and feel.

There doesn’t seem to be a mechanism at this point in the Pebble App Store for paid apps, but most of the more complex apps have “companion” apps you can purchase through the respective phone App Stores.  Having to go through the Apple review process, at least, enforces a little more visual consistency.

Bottom Line

There are only so many things you need or want on your wrist.  You won’t see an explosion of apps on the App Store for these, but a few essentials will rise to the top.

But really, does this thing add to my life?  Hmm.  In a strictly first-world scenario, I’d have to say yes!  Basic apps that you want at hand are really at hand.  The Misfit app is quite good and actually helps me to keep my activity level up throughout the day.  I’m happy to tell people about the weather forecast whenever I can.

It’s not ugly.  There’s no denying it is a big rectangle on your wrist, but the design isn’t too bad.  The plastic is highly glossy and there are lots of skins available if you want to change color. The band is replaceable with any standard 22mm band so there’s a lot of visual variety available for a reasonable cost.

Speaking of that reasonable cost… yes this watch will become obsolete in a couple of years.  But, at this price, is that a big deal?  Maybe by then the Apple Watch will be more accessible.

Maglite Solitaire LED Conversion

I got a Maglite Solitaire LED flashlight this summer, but I already had two regular incandescent ones.  Once you get used to the LED one, the incandescent one is so… dim… and yellow.  It’s really really convenient, though, and I’d hate to just drawer it, or worse yet, junk it.

I got a cool little module from eBay that just plugs right in and you’re done.  About $7.  Is that as good as it gets?

I found a pretty good tutorial on YouTube about how to mod an existing one to LED, so I thought I’d try it, and what is explained below is that exact project, with some slight changes.  The main thing is that a 1.5v cell isn’t enough to drive a decent LED light, so I’d either need to build a teeny tiny booster (probably what was done in the module above) or change the source voltage.  Voltage it is!

The space is limited in the battery compartment.  So what to do?  Very small batteries with 1.5v… sounds like a watch battery.  Also sounds expensive… but, the YouTube video explained how you can get an A23 battery and peel it open to gain 8 LR932 cells!

Unleashed the power.
Unleashed the power.

I found a double-pack of these batteries for just over $5.  Shop around, the prices can vary considerably.  Make sure it’s an alkaline battery, apparently there are some carbon batteries this size but they aren’t going to have anything near as tidy inside (i.e. “gunk”).

Note, If you do this, keep the positive and negative terminal bits.

You will only need 3 cells for one light, so put aside 5 of them.  Now we need to make a spacer so that the battery reaches both terminals inside the flashlight.  Get a pen tube and cut it to approximately 30mm.  You don’t need to be laser-precise, but get as close as you can.

Next, LEDs really should have a current-limiting resistor to prevent them blowing up.  Technically these cells probably have enough internal resistance to it’s not a problem, but I wanted to add a tiny amount of extra just in case.  The video suggested a 68 ohm resistor, but I didn’t have that, so I used a 51 ohm one.  I did say a tiny amount, didn’t I?  With a hammer and nail (or screw), poke holes in the top and bottom of the disassembled terminals you saved from before.  Solder one through the hole and then fish it through the pen tube and solder on the other end, again through the hole.

Spacer Age
Spacer Age

Note that the plastic may melt as you solder this, another reason to leave a mm or two to spare on the length of the tube.  With the cells and the spacer you now have a 4.5v “battery” the same length as a AAA cell.

Pop them into the battery compartment – pay attention to the orientation of the little cells, it almost seemed backwards to me at the time.  The flat side is positive and should be facing the bulb socket.

A thumbnail
A thumbnail of, well…

Now to get the LED bulb in there.  I assumed that I needed a really tiny LED, so I went and ordered some SMT ultra-bright LEDs from Amazon.  I just got them and yup they are really tiny.  These are designed for automated pick & place production but it’s not impossible to solder them manually!  I got two small cutoff leads from a capacitor and tried to figure out how to place them on this thing… first step was to get a ball of solder on each of the LED’s solder pads.  That’s fairly simple, just blob some melted solder on the bottom, and it will congeal on each pad as it should.

Lining up the leads, though, was another thing.  I decided to poke them into a cork, bend them over so they were going straight into the back of the LED and then just heat the blobs just enough to melt the leads into it.  Not too hard!

Soldered
Soldered
With a novelty size paperclip
With a novelty size paperclip for size comparison

Next, test it in the flashlight.  Remember that these are diodes, so if you plug it in one direction it may not work, even though the connection is perfect!  Try flipping the leads around and plugging it in the other way.  You too may be pleasantly blinded by the light.  (Curiously, that song was playing on Spotify just as I was doing this, and I only realized it now). If you are using needle nose pliers as I was to push in the diodes, grasping both of the leads, remember you are shorting the connection as you push it in.  It will not light up as you are doing this… so make a connection and then let it go for a second to make sure it’s working.

IMG_1964Now to trim down the leads.  I decided that the base of the LED should be at the same spot as the base of the regular bulb. Using that comparison, I snipped off the leads and then tried to carefully push the leads again into the light… and ripped the trace right off the SMT LED.  🙁

Oh well, I had ordered 50 of the little thingies (that’s the technical term), so I did it all again.  This time I was more careful, and taped off the jaws of my needle nose pliers so I could see if it was working as I was inserting it.  It worked, and blinded me again!

Factory LED (left) my mod (right)
Factory LED (left) my mod (right)

With my good eye, I could see that the tiny little LED fits through the bulb hole in the reflector with room to spare.  I actually realized as these were on order that I could have ordered actual 3mm ultra-bright LEDs and just cut and plugged it in.  Hm.  Well, let’s just say they’re on order now.  I will at least have a point for comparison (and 48 more SMT LEDs).  The connection point from the lead to the LED (say that out loud) is probably fragile, but it may have enough shock absorption in from the case and being suspended 1/4″ away from the body of the light.  In any case, I will use the spare bulb location in the base of the battery compartment for one of the other LEDs, so I will always have one even if it does break.

The result is pretty decent.  It looks like the first-party Maglite installed version is a fair bit brighter – and has the advantage of using standard AAA cells.  However, I am curious how the battery drain compares on these two, and how much different the 3mm LED is once I get it.

All in all, not too hard of a project.  The price was reasonable and the result is definitely superior to the original incandescent light.  If you had the LED and the battery on hand, you could probably do this in about 20 minutes to half an hour.

MacDVDRipper Pro 5

I was a fan of RipIt and DVDRemaster a couple of years ago, I had a nice workflow going where I could convert my DVD TV series discs into MP4s for the Apple TV  (We have a lot of discs).  I discovered MDRP since then, and I have been very happy with it, just a few clicks to rip and convert in decent quality.  I love to see an encoder max out all of my cores, too 🙂

(As a side note, it seems that DVDRemaster got purchased by the company selling MDRP, so I suppose it’s a natural upgrade path for me)

Well, v5 came out a couple of weeks ago, but I couldn’t see much that was powerfully compelling about the new features – all they said was that it was now 64-bit and embedded switchable soft-subtitles.  And something very vague about converting after the fact.  Would that matter to me?

I decided to do a face-off with a single TV season disc.  The metrics here have “buckshot accuracy” but give me an idea.  I ripped 4 episodes in v4 and the demo of v5 and compared the time-stamps… it almost appeared like v5 was twice as fast.  Yes, about 12 minutes between two episodes in v4 and 6 in v5.  WOW.  Why are they not advertising considerable speed gains?  I know the computer could have been doing a bunch more during the first encode, but surely not that much!  I ran through a couple more box sets to be sure… and yup, I can finish a disc of about 4 episodes in roughly half an hour.  Even the fans on my iMac blew at high speed for the v4 conversion and remained quiet for the v5.

This is a totally worthwhile upgrade just for that rough test.  But, I discovered the other killer feature.  Previously, you could not use .dvdmedia packages as a source – which was a drag if I wanted to distribute the ripping task to other machines using say, RipIt.  This version though, uses them just fine!  Yeah!  I didn’t find a big improvement in distributing that process though, since the convert straight from disc is so fast it’s almost not worth ripping to an image and converting from that.

The upgrade was $10 and totally worth it.

Freemium Free

It began with an outright refusal to pay extra to play more of a game. Freemium games are now dead to me.

I should define more early what I mean. In this context I don’t mean a full game or app with add-ins, like extra levels or “pro” functionality. I figure each level is very usable and enjoyable, and you get to what you pay for, many times if you so choose.

What I have come to loathe is the “gems”, “crystals” (or its analog) idea, where you have to pay in virtual and also real currency continuously to enjoy the game.

Related to this are repeated notifications that draw you back into the game – clearly to maintain their revenue stream.

I kinda find the fun game experience should do that, don’t you think? For example, PvZ was really fun. I bought it on three platforms and replayed it twice on each. PvZ 2 was really, well, not fun. It was all about maintaining an economy of premium features. You could only enjoy what you could afford in the game. It has thus been deleted.

IMG_0105.JPG

The final hanger-on was Real Racing 3. I actually did enjoy this game (when I wasn’t cursing its knife-edged grip modeling). It gave you quite a lot for free, but it still bugged me. I couldn’t repeatedly race my favorite car, because they all have an artificially imposed limit… unless, of course, you pay. Secondly, I grew annoyed at the regular (daily) notifications that “you really should be playing”. Yes I know I can turn these off, but why are they there in the first place? When I needed a few extra gig to upgrade iOS the other day, I finally unloaded it. I hadn’t played it for months anyway.

So with that, I no longer have any freemium games at all on any of my devices. When I see one on the App Store I first look at the in app purchase list and if it has a satchel or truckload or baggie of gems or crystals or whatever, I know it will not add to my fun. Instead, I will play a fantastic game like Minecraft PE or True Skate, or, who knows, maybe I’ll even start PvZ again.