Power Up

Way back when, cell phones had removable batteries and during times of heavy usage, you could easily swap batteries out mid-day to extend your battery life. Those days are long gone and a whole industry has popped up around the portable charger market to juice up your phone through the day.

I usually have my TravelCard charger in my wallet for a jump start and when I know I will be away from an outlet for most of the day, I have a Anker charger as well. Between the two I can use my iPhone all day without worry.

Recently, a company called Fuel Rod has a new offering in this space. For $20, you get a small USB battery, short USB cable, and adapters for Apple 30-pin and lightning. The battery can be purchased at an automated kiosk. Fuel Rod kiosks are at many airports, a few malls, and now at Walt Disney World.  

The battery is lower capacity than my Anker (2600mAh vs 3200mAh) but is the same “lipstick” style that is common. So what is so special about Fuel Rod? Well, your $20 investment includes battery replacements. Charge up your Fuel Rod at home, top up your phone on a plane, and when you arrive at your destination, go to the Fuel Rod kiosk and swap it out for a fully charged one. The swaps are free and unlimited.

You, can, of course, recharge the Fuel Rod using any micro USB cable and use it like a regular battery.

So while the battery itself is middle of the road, the ability to swap out (assuming you’ll be in an area where there are kiosks) is very appealing to ensure you always have enough power for your mobile devices.



The Fuel Rod Kiosk at Philadelphia International Airport in terminal E.

The Fuel Rod Kiosk at Philadelphia International Airport in terminal E.

Siri on the Apple Watch and xfinitywifi

I have been finding myself using Siri more on my Watch then I ever did on my phone. Raising my wrist and saying "Hey Siri" usually works pretty well and I do it a lot around my house and office. 

I noticed Siri wasn't as responsive when I was out and about, and initially thought it might have to do with background noise, wind, etc. Tonight I happened to try it while my phone was out.  I noticed the phone had a WiFi connection to Comcast's xfinitywifi service, but only one bar. The iPhone hangs onto any WiFi connection (even a lousy one) before switching back to much faster LTE. I killed the WiFi and Siri was immediately back to her quick, helpful self.

Comcast's WiFi is pervasive, but often is actually delivered as a side effect from private homes and businesses, so it can be very inconsistent. It's handy in a pinch but I will leave it off my iPhone list of WiFi networks since it is effectively slowing down my Siri requests with bad connections.

Bose QC20i

I have long been a fan of the Bose QuietComfort line of headphones; they really do make flying much more comfortable, and are certainly useful in other places as well. The main downside I found to their latest, the QC15's, was that they took up a huge amount of space in my bag. (I've been trying to learn to travel light, and lately don't even bring a laptop with me) 

So I was excited when Bose announced the QC20's in early June. These were the first earbud version of the QuietComfort noise canceling headphones.

I recently had a chance to try a pair on a transcontinental flight and back and the QC20i's (the version that includes control for iOS devices) are my new favorite traveling headphones.

First - the size. There is a small control box/battery a few inches from the 3.5mm jack, and then a controller pod in the middle of the cable, and then it splits to two cables to go to each ear. Even with the control box, the whole thing is really small and comes with a carry case around the size of an iPod classic.

Second - the sound. Noise canceling is as good as the QC15's. Put them in your ears, turn them on, and the sound of twin 737 jet engines quickly fades into nothingness. Sound quality is great for both music and spoken voice content. 

The QC20's also come with an "aware" mode which is great when you need to, well, be aware of whats going on around you. It seemingly uses the microphones to allow you to hear what is going on around you, and you can easily carry on a conversation without needing to take the earbuds out of your ears. A little socially awkward, yes, but it works really well. The noise cancellation requires battery power; a micro-USB connector on the control box keeps working for up to 16 hours between charges, and even when depleted, you can still listen via the headphones, but without noise cancelation. The included Bose StayHear tips are rather comfortable and hold the earbuds in place, even for a long period of time.

Watching Technology

I have to admit being enthusiastic about wearable computing, specifically smart watches. Lately, this area has generated a lot of buzz in the market with products like the Pebble and rumors of Apple entering the market.

The idea of smart watches is nothing new; we all remember the tiny calculator watches. I skipped those but was the proud owner of a Timex Internet Messenger Watch in the early 2000's. Paired with wireless service from Skytel (yes, the pager company) my watch could receive short messages via e-mail and even get alerts from Yahoo! It ran on a hearing aid battery that lasted about a month.

Later, Microsoft got in on the fun with their SPOT technology. SPOT, or smart personal objects, was a Microsoft initiative to Internet-enable everyday devices. They started with watches but I recall a few kitchen appliances and clock radios also supporting the technology. Watch sellers like Fossil and Swatch all made watches supporting the technology. They featured rechargeable batteries that would last a week at a time, and received data via an FM radio signal available in most metro areas of the US. The watches connected to a service called MSN Direct for notifications, weather, news, sports scores, and could even sync calendar reminders from Outlook. The watches disappeared in 2008 or 2009, and Microsoft pulled the plug on the radio transmissions in 2011.

At a Blackberry WES conference, I saw an early version of a watch from a Canadian company called Allerta. This became the inPulse smart watch. The inPulse used Bluetooth to connect to a Blackberry and displayed notifications, calendar, and allowed customization of the watch face from your PC. Battery life was horrible (just a few days) but the screen was nice, and it proved what can be done with just one button.

The inPulse grew up to be the Pebble Smartwatch, which was a huge success in its Kickstarter campaign, although the growing company has had challenges meeting the demand. The Pebble syncs up with iPhones and Android devices, but additional app support is thus far limited. While reviews are good, it is not yet a mainstream device. A recent distribution deal with Best Buy is obviously aimed at changing that.

Rumors persist that Apple is working on an entrant in this category. As a complimentary product to the iPhone, it makes sense, and Apple also has a history of introducing products into categories that prior to their entry have been somewhat niche and, well, geeky. Other companies are rumored to do the same - Microsoft (again), Sony, and Google are all rumored to be working on products in this space.

Having used a lot of the products I mentioned above, the products that will be successful in this space need to have great battery life (one week minimum), a decent screen, and a backend set of services that deliver relevant information when and where people want it. (Google Now seems particularly well suited for this use) It also needs to be reasonably sized - all of the products above are or were what would be considered "large" for a watch.

Other ideas I've heard of in this space include using the watch for identity purposes - using NFC or other low-power radio. Walt Disney World is already testing this concept with the MagicBand (all it is missing is the time). Plenty of other "sensor" products are on the market already like the Jawbone UP for tracking physical activity and sleep could be integrated as well.

With smartphones now becoming a solidly mainstream technology, wearable computing could be the next big leap in personal communication and information gathering - it will be interesting to see where this all leads in the next year or two.

After Reader

After some testing, I've settled on the following for my RSS needs: 

I tried a number of services including Feedwrangler, Feedly, Digg Reader, as well as Feedbin. I actually like that Feedbin charges a small subscription; Google claimed they couldn't make a business of maintaining Reader, so going to another free service doesn't make sense. (if Google can't make a buck off a web based service, I don't know who can). I also like Feedbin's web interface, although I suspect most of my use will be via one of the third party clients listed above.

The only real change for me beyond $2/month for Feedbin is Mr. Reader. I previously used Reeder on iPad, which has now been pulled off the app store until it can be updated to work with the newer variety of RSS sync services.  I also used Reeder on the Mac, which now has the same status as the iPad version, so I will rely on Feedbin's web interface for now.


Extending Airplay to Bluetooth devices

Currently most of the audio equipment in my home is connected via Airplay; while definitely Apple-centric, there is enough third party support from the likes of Bose and Pioneer that I am quite happy with the setup.  

I do have a few bluetooth speakers, too, like the Jawbone Jambox and the Logitech UE Mobile Boombox. I primarily use these in the garage, on the deck, or in the basement and pair them up with my iPhone. This works well enough until I want a track to play throughout the whole house; while Airplay can easily handle multiple speakers, streaming to Bluetooth speakers is largely a one-to-one affair.

I've been trying to find a way to bridge Airplay to Bluetooth, but since Airplay is fairly well controlled by Apple, there doesn't seem to be a simple box that can enable this. 

The only solution I've found so far is to use an Android device to bridge the two. There are a number of unofficial Airplay apps available in Google Play; I am using AirBubble (free to try, $1.99 to buy) It works as advertised; I launched it on my Nexus 7 and it immediately showed up as an Airplay destination on my iOS and Mac devices.

I then paired the UE Mobile Boombox to my Nexus 7, and started playing a track on my Mac. Within a few seconds, Airplay connected to my Nexus 7 and then immediately came out of the bluetooth speakers.

This is a fairly clunky setup (how many OSes does it take a geek to play one song after all ) but works amazingly well. It lets me bring the bluetooth speaker anywhere within range of the Nexus 7 and add it as an multi-speaker output to a song playing in iOS or Mac.

I am trying to find a way to accomplish the same thing with a Raspberry Pi rather than an Android device; there are Airplay receiver scripts available but I haven't seen anyone out there try this sort of configuration with the Pi yet. Might have to give it a shot. 



Google Reader

Google Reader, which is shutting down in less than a month, is part of my daily reading. I generally use the excellent Reeder app either on iPhone or iPad to access the service, although occasionally I use Press on my Nexus 7 or (shudder) access the website directly.

Given the time left, I have started to experiment with 3 replacement services:

  • Feedly - They seem to be replicating the Google Reader API and have announced that many third party apps (including those I mentioned above) will have support for the service before the end of June. The service right now appears to be a Flipboard-like front end to Google Reader. Nice, but not what I need. (free)
  • Feedbin - Reeder for iPhone already syncs with Feedbin, presumably the iPad version will in the future. The Feedbin web interface is really quite nice, nicer than Google Reader's native interface. Offers a very flexible "share" feature as well. ($2/month)
  • Feedwrangler - Seems like the most bare bones of the bunch so far. A very simple (almost Craigslist like) web interface is offered, as well as apps for iPhone and iPad, although it doesn't look like there are too many third party clients yet. It also doesn't seem to support categories/folders/tags for organizing feeds, but does have a powerful "Smart Streams" feature for creating a custom feed based on a search term. ($18/year)

These are just a few I've tried, there may be others. With Google exiting the market, there is a lot of opportunity for independent developers to come up with something really useful and hopefully more sustainable than Google Reader was.

1Password 4 Bookmarklet for iOS

I use 1Password to generate and store website logins and the like. The new version for iOS, 1Password4 has a pretty good built in web browser to autologin to websites.

Still, most of my iOS browsing happens in Safari. A recent update added a new URL scheme to the app, so I wrote a quick little Javascript bookmarklet and added it to my Safari bookmarks bar. All it does is opening the page you are looking at in 1Password - since Safari iOS doesn't allow extensions, this is the next best thing:


Works like a champ.

It's Not Just the Hardware

It is strange to use the word “ecosystem” when referring to technology, but this is an increasingly important concept in the post PC era of smartphones, tablets, and other devices.

I admit that most of my personal computing, entertainment, and media consumption is done across Apple’s product line. While most people think of Apple as a hardware company, I have likely spent more on music, apps, and movies with Apple than hardware over the years. Before iTunes, my music library consisted of a manually maintained folder of MP3 files, which WinAMP would occasionally index correctly so I could find a song. Then, Apple brought us iTunes and later, created one of the first, easy to use, legal, online music stores. Fast forward a few years, and now Apple has created an excellent cycle for itself - I should buy my music through iTunes because it will seamlessly show up on all of my devices, and I should buy Apple devices for the same reason. All my “stuff” is easily accessible on my Macbook, iPad, iPhone, and Apple TV with very little planning or thought needed. Just send some cash to Cupertino and all is well.

This became apparent to me when I started using a Nexus 7 tablet recently. This is a nice piece of hardware - very lightweight, feels good in the hands, has OK battery life and a nice screen. It is great for reading and light browsing. However, I’m missing key parts of my technology ecosystem on the 7. My content from Spotify and Kindle came right over, but most of my music is locked away in iTunes and iTunes Match - not easily accessible from the Nexus 7’s Jelly Bean powered OS. Photostream, despite its limitations and flaws, is a great way to get that picture of my son I took yesterday very quickly. Doesn’t happen on the 7.

Apps certainly don’t work cross platform. Thankfully, Instapaper has been ported to Android and works great on the 7. But I’ve yet to find replacements for two other apps key to my daily browsing workflow, Reeder and Tweetbot. There are plenty of alternatives, but as windows to online content, I have yet to find Android equivalents for these and a few more apps I use very regularly on iOS. The included Google Reader client is OK, and between Plume and Tweetcaster, I can get by on Twitter. Neither of these options though are as fluid and easy to use as their iOS (distant) cousins.

This is not an argument that iOS is better than Android. I’m sure I would feel the same way if my ecosystem was built up on the Android platform over the years. Instead of my Nexus 7 being a useless slab of silicon and glass next to my Apple TV, I would show off photos and watch Youtube on my Nexus Q connected to my TV.

In the ancient past, we’d have similar discussions about Mac vs Windows. That has largely disappeared in favor of iOS vs Android. But its no longer just about software - content itself doesn’t flow as neatly between platforms. iCloud has extended Apple’s ability to provide a nice service that conveniently works across all hardware that features an Apple logo - and no other.

What I find interesting is the services that are bridging the gap. Amazon announced a new lineup of tablets last week. I have the original Kindle Fire, and while it makes an OK ebook reader, it makes a horrible tablet. Even so, I purchased a few paid apps from the Amazon app store - something I have yet to do in the Google Play store. Why?

Amazon has generally kept itself fairly agnostic in this race. Yes, the Kindle Fire lineup runs on an Android base, but Amazon has overhauled and customized the software and interface to make its own. And since Amazon seems to be more interested in selling the content vs. the hardware (thus far at least), the apps I purchased for my Kindle Fire came right over to my Nexus 7. Similarly, my Kindle ebooks show up equally well on my Kindle hardware, iPad, Nexus 7, Mac, and nearly any other device I can think of. Even better, Amazon’s whispersync platform keeps everything in sync across all of them. I can now view Amazon instant video on my iPad, and the Amazon MP3 platform is available on all platforms and now has the same features. None of these kind of features is available cross platform with Apple iBooks or Google Play.

I’m more comfortable buying content from Amazon, because I know it will work on their hardware as well as other hardware I’m likely to buy in the future. This is a huge advantage to Amazon in that households with iPads can buy a Kindle Fire as a “second tablet” and be able to share the content (somewhat) between the two platforms. If you stick exclusively with Google Play or iTunes, you are also largely tied to their respective hardware platforms.

Lastly, content lasts a lot longer than hardware. I have every piece of music I’ve acquired since the 90’s in my iTunes library, but it would be hard for me to find a piece of hardware of mine still in operation since that time. Does this mean I can never buy a non-Apple device? No, but for now, I can be certain that a rumored iPad mini will be tons more useful in my ecosystem than the Nexus 7. As long as that cycle continues, I’m sure me and many others will continue sending business to Apple.

How much gas is left?

Old BBQ grills used to have a weight-based meter to tell you about how much gas you have left. I have no idea why they stopped making them like that, but I recently got a new grill and had a year or so old tank of propane with an unknown amount of gas left.

I dug up my portable luggage scale, which has previously paid for itself in avoiding airline fees, and now has a second use. I found an empty tank is 15 pounds, and propane weighs about 4 pounds per gallon. Thankfully it weighed in at 24 pounds, so there was no mad rush on July 4 to find a tank exchange.


I recently had some business travel after a a few month travel hiatus.

While I was attending a business technology conference, I was blown away by the number of iPads. In a 500 person presentation room, there would easily be 300 iPads, a handful of laptops, and maybe one or two other tablets (I saw exactly one Blackberry PlayBook, two Lenovo Android tablets, and one (I think) Samsung Android something-or-other)

There were a few great apps that came in handy worth highlighting:

  • TripIt - if you ever travel and you haven't used TripIt, you are missing out. Simply forward all those airline, hotel, rental car, and restaurant reservation emails to plans@tripit.com. It automatically creates an iterinary, which can easily be modified on their website or a mobile app, and the pro version also checks for airline fare reductions and flight changes. Really handy.

  • Flight Status is a great companion app as it syncs with TripIt, and gives you real-time flight information. It also has push notifications and often knows about gate changes, delays, etc before they are announced at the airport.

  • Instapaper is a great app and service that works with your web browser. When you come across a lengthy article you want to read later, clip it to Instapaper. Using the iPhone or iPad app, the text of the article is downloaded and stored on your device for convienent reading, even without an Internet connection

  • Tweetbot - the best iPhone Twitter client, period. Great interface and I've yet to find a feature I needed that it didn't have - only wish they made an iPad-optimized version

  • Spotify is a phenominal music service. For $10/month, any song in their catalog can be streamed or downloaded to your PC, Mac, or mobile device. The iTunes music store still has a slightly bigger selection, but Spotify's catalog is impressive.

What we forgot

Ten years ago today was the first day of my last semester at college. I somehow ended up with a class schedule starting at 8:30AM, and after leaving that classroom for the first time that day, I learned how the world had changed.

I vividly remember some of the immediate effects of our collective shock. It took a week or so for television to return to anything but news, and I still recall Jon Stewart returning to the Daily Show with tears in his eyes.

As a nation, we reacted by starting a few wars, and made it impossible to board an aircraft with items as threating as a tube of toothpaste.

But one thing that I remember in the weeks following is that everyone, I mean everyone, was nice to one another. Doors were held, people made eye contact with complete strangers, and drivers even waved people into the line of traffic on the highway. We had all just been attacked and the common sense of shock reminded us of what was important.

That didn't last as long as it should, as we slowly returned to the new normal in the following months. A lot of brave, innocent people were lost that day. Perhaps the best way to honor their memory is to return to that common sense of kindness towards one another.

Can you text me now?

With Apple's announcement of the new iMessage, mobile instant messaging appears to be a new battleground for differentiation between smart phone platforms.

Blackberry was the first to do this with Blackberry Messenger. BBM is a great tool in that it is fast, works really well, and is free. But of course, both parties must have Blackberries. iMessage is seemingly similar from a functionality perspective but adds the usual Apple flair with a nice UI. Apple has also integrated SMS into iMessage, so at least if you need to contact someone who isn't using it, you don't need a separate app to fall back on SMS like you do on Blackberry.

Rumor has it Google also has something in the works; whether this is an enhanced version of Google Talk or something else remains to be seen. However, since every smartphone platform has a more or less similar mobile instant messaging service, how does this differentiate or give one platform the edge over another? It will never happen - but if BBM could talk to iMessage could talk to Google - that would be the true killer of SMS and really drive up adoption and usage.

SMS works across any phone - even non-smartphones of course - but carriers use it as a cash cow. AT&T even dropped their cheapest SMS plan recently, making the monthly cost $10 at a minimum. It reminds me of how PRODIGY used to charge per email message in the 1990's. You got 30 for free, and then had to pay per message after that. We haven't come far in 15 years in terms of billing or service models apparently.

I have used things like Kik messenger, which running on iOS and Android, is fairly close to a true cross-platform solution. But even Kik should be integrated with the others. Imagine if you could only email other users of the same email platform as you. "Oh, you use Outlook? I'm on Gmail. Sorry!" It would never fly. Why do we have to put up with it in text messaging?


Doubly useful case

I've tried a few keyboards with my iPad, but never really relied on one as:


  1. Its something else to carry
  2. Unless you have a table to lean on, its nearly impossible to balance a keyboard and the iPad on your lap.

While the iPad in my mind is still very much a touch device, I recently picked up an InCase Origami case for my Apple wireless keyboard. The Origami is a case just for the small Apple Bluetooth keyboard, but it folds in a rather unique way that allows it to also function as a pretty useful stand for the iPad when opened. Even better, the iPad itself can remain in many cases and still be put in the Origami and be kept steady enough to sit in your lap without a table. If you are looking to use your iPad as a laptop replacement, the combination of the Origami case and the Apple Bluetooth keyboard is a good match.


Two Surprising Questions about the Verizon iPhone

A lot of people have asked me what I thought about the Verizon iPhone and if they should get one. I am fairly agnostic when it comes to wireless OSes - while my personal phone is an iPhone 4, I also carry (and really like) a Blackberry Bold 9650 for work. My household also has Android devices to round out the collection. Each certainly has its strengths and weaknesses.

People then ask - "but I heard you can't make a phone call and surf the Internet at the same time, is that true?", of the Verizon iPhone. It is a valid question, but most of the people who have asked are already Verizon customers - their current phone can't do it either! This is a limitation of the CDMA network that Verizon uses and applies to all of their current phones. Yes, simultaneous voice and data do come in handy, but it is a fairly new feature across the board. The original iPhone couldn't do it either - it wasn't until the iPhone 3G that this was possible on the AT&T iPhone. Of course, the exception which is rarely mentioned is that if you are in an area with a WiFi connection, you can continue to access data while on the phone. Even on my iPhone 4, 99% of the few times I use this feature, it is in my house, where there is abundant WiFi connectivity.

The second surprise for me, specifically for current Android users, is when I ask them about their apps. Android apps won't run on iOS, and vice-versa. While many apps are available cross-platform, if they are not free, you'll need to pay again.

This would certainly be a stumbling block for me to switch my primary phone off of iOS. While I enjoy many free apps, I also have a fair investment in paid apps and wouldn't want to repurchase all of them to switch to another platform.

Surprisingly, many of the people I have talked to are concerned, and then realize that most of their Android apps are free, with maybe one or two paid apps - no big deal. Conversely, of the people I know who already have an iOS device, many have numerous paid apps. While I'm sure this isn't the case for all Android users, I suspect the easy purchasing process in the iTunes App Store vs. the Android Marketplace may be Apple's secret weapon to keeping customers using iOS for a long time to come.

Access a remote Mac from an iPad

I've used Citrix Online's GoToMyPC service for a long time. It is a little pricey, but has saved me more than a few times. It is a fairly simple way to access your home PC (or Mac). A small agent runs on your home system, and then by logging into the website at GoToMyPC.com, you can remotely access that system from any other over the Internet. This all happens without opening firewall ports or special security configuration - GoToMyPC brokers a secure tunnel.

One gap in their service is that they have yet to release an iOS-compatible version of their client; while you can access your home computer from Mac, PC, or Linux, there is no way to use it from an iPhone, or better yet, iPad. This feature has been "coming soon" since the iPad was released, and with no commitment to a solid release date, I began looking at alternatives.

A main competitor to GoToMyPC is a service called LogMeIn. LogMeIn is actually cheaper than GoToMyPC and they have a reasonably-well-rated iOS client available for $30 on the app store. While it offers a security model similar to GoToMyPC, LogMeIn requires that you enter your PC or Mac's password directly into their application - and this set off my computer security paranoid alarm.

Having ruled out LogMeIn, I looked at a new iOS app called Screens. Screens is a VNC client that works equally well on iPhone and iPad. Mac OS has a built-in VNC server, and to increase security, also offers SSH for creating a secure tunnel for the session. Thankfully, Screens also has built in SSH support.

There are a few steps I needed to take to setup my Mac and firewall to allow the connection. First, I setup DynDNS so I can find my Mac on the Internet - my ISP, Comcast, gives me a dynamic IP address. I use an Apple Airport Extreme router and thankful DynDNS has published instructions to configure that router to automatically update DNS whenever my Comcast IP changes.

I also had to open a port on my firewall - not something I like doing, but I came up with a clever method to lock the service down that I will detail later. In the Airport utility, click the Advanced Icon, choose "Port Mapping", and then click the "+" to add a new mapping. Select "Remote Login - SSH" and click Continue. 

Back on my Mac, in System Preferences, I turned on the "Screen Sharing" and "Remote Login" services in the Sharing pane.

Once these are all set, I fired up the Screen app on my iPad, created a new connection and entered the DynDNS hostname I created. The only manual setting was to turn on SSH.

I mentioned earlier I don't like leaving the SSH port opened - while SSH is encrypted, I'd rather protect my personal Mac than risk an unknown security vulnerability be exploited.

To get around this, I created a quick AppleScript that would toggle the Remote Login service on and off:

run application "System Preferences"

tell application "System Preferences" to set current pane to pane "com.apple.preferences.sharing"

tell application "System Events" to tell process "System Preferences"

click checkbox 1 of row 7 of table 1 of scroll area 1 of group 1 of window "Sharing"

end tell

quit application "System Preferences"


There is probably a better way to do this, but the script simply opens the System Preferences application, opens the Sharing pane, and checks (or unchecked) the Remote Login service.

To tie this all together, I created a mail rule in Mail.app. I set some specific criteria (i.e. has to be from me, to me, with a specific subject line and body) and the rule then fires off the script. I simply leave Mail.app running. When I want to start a session with Screens, I send myself an email with the keywords that the rule is looking for, the script runs, and SSH is activated. I then connect with Screen, and at the end of the session, send the same email again, and the SSH server is shut down.

Not foolproof, but better than leaving the server up and running all of the time, and gives me access when I need it.