Tag Archives: apple

Why Wait? Well…

In technology, timing is everything. When shopping for new equipment, we tend to seek out the newest, latest, greatest in tech—and hopefully for the best price, if we can arrange that as well. That’s human nature. But is there a benefit to waiting, or is our desire for instant gratification justified? It’s not always as straightforward as a trip to the electronics store (or website).

To illustrate my point, I’m going to point out four types of electronics consumer. There is a fifth that I’ll get to at the end, but I want to start with these four:

1. The Early Adopter

We all know this one—some of us even ARE this one! He downloads beta versions of software before it’s officially released. He reads rumor websites like macrumors.com, and he tunes in to the live feeds of keynote presentations from the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and Apple’s WorldWide Developer’s Conference (WWDC). He pre-orders his devices; and when that isn’t an option, he waits in line all night.

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Talk about dedication! These guys are waiting in line together, AND they’ve got matching outfits! Source: MarketWatch.com

I confess to having a lot of those tendencies. And in tech, these are more often considered virtues than vices. It’s a little stressful knowing that there’s always something “brand new” on the horizon, but that doesn’t diminish the satisfaction of being the “first on the block” with the newest toys. Of the four habits, this one requires the greatest investment of time and money. But The Early Adopter is doing his part to keep tech companies in business, churning out the latest gadgets to meet that demand. And once he’s done his part, spreading the buzz about the tech he’s acquired (through no lack of effort), in steps…

2. The Bandwagoner

There is no crime in waiting a few weeks—or even months—for the supply of a given device to rise to meet demand. In most cases, manufacturers look at their sales and, as long as they don’t run into parts shortages or other logistical obstacles, they can ship out enough for everyone. This is where The Bandwagoner can pick up his device of choice. He’s not one to wait in a line, or to sweat over arcane pre-order processes. No, he’s patient. And this patience is often rewarded with “Version 1.1” (or later) editions, honed if not perfected after The Early Adopter reported any bugs he found in that launch wave.

The Bandwagoner also can enjoy the added benefit of a growing selection of peripherals and accessories for this new gadget. For example, I’m thinking of the varieties of cases for iPads and iPhones whenever a new model comes out. You see, it takes those case makers at least a few weeks to custom-fit their designs every time Apple adds or subtracts a few millimeters to their products. When The Bandwagoner is ready, he can pick up everything in one trip to the store. And if he waits long enough, he’ll slide into the next category…

3. The Mid-Cycler

This is a well-populated, if not-entirely-festive place to be. When a product has been out for several months (or even years, in some cases), it can be frustrating when you’re ready to buy the “latest” device, even if it’s not particularly “new.” For example, I recently had a friend of mine, “J,” text me to ask about the iPad Pro. This was our conversation:

J: I’m torn between the sizes

C: Have you handled both at the store? The 12 was a bit too big for my comfort. But you know there’s likely a new Pro coming out this year…

J: yeah it is a monster – hence my uncertainty. BUT a large factor in why I want a Pro (and not just new iPad) is to draw on. And the big one seems better for that. I’ve heard the new one is only going to come in one size and likely 10″. You heard dif?

C: Nothing official. They did just release a new 9″ non-Pro model. I’d be surprised if a new 12 wasn’t in the works.

J: Though I’d prob still go with a refurb old one. Wonder how much cheaper those would get when new model came out… And WHEN! Damn you Apple.

C: June 5 is their next big conference. WWDC. If you can stand to wait, it almost always pays off

J: Gah! I mean of course I can. This is all just for funzies.

C: 👍

J: But I want it now! Stupid lousy world.

C: Then get it now. Live your life, son!

J: blah. BLAH

C: Lol

I don’t know what he decided to do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he waited a little longer, placing him firmly in the fourth category:

4. The Waiter

In tech, waiting for the next release is almost always a good instinct. What comes out next is almost uniformly superior to what’s out now; and it will either come out at the same price as today’s model, thus reducing the price of what’s out now; or the new device itself will debut at a lower price point. The Waiter loves when this happens, and he typically isn’t shy about gloating to The Early Adopter about the “better deal” he got, just by being patient.

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My hat’s off to anyone who can wait five years to buy hardware or software. Source: XKCD.com

The Waiter doesn’t always seek out the newest gear. Often he sees the new release and, unless it has some “must-have” feature, he happily picks up “last year’s model” at a reduced price. I’m reminded of a conversation I overheard at the Apple Store the other day, when a young woman was deciding between the $269 Apple Watch Series 1; or one of the other varieties, starting with the Series 2 at $369.

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Apple’s current line of Watches. Source: Apple.com, click image to go to their comparison page.

The Apple clerk pointed out that the most prominent additions for the Series 2 are the built-in GPS, and that it’s now water resistant to 50 meters (as opposed to the Series 1, which is simply “Splash resistant”). The young lady thought it over, and said, “I don’t need the GPS, and I’m not going swimming with it.” So the salesman suggested she save the $100 and go with the Series 1. For those who don’t remember, the Series 1 debuted in 2015 for a starting price of $349. So not only did not needing to have the “latest and greatest” save her $100, but she saved $80 just by waiting a couple years!

Apple products almost universally reward The Waiter, despite the “ooh” factor of having the brand-newest iPhone, iPad, etc. In fact, Apple broke typical protocol and teased for their patient Waiter audience that a new Mac Pro desktop is on the horizon for possibly as early as 2018. They never do that. If you’re curious about your own next Apple purchase, you might want to pop over to MacRumors Buyer’s Guide. But as we’re still several weeks away from WWDC, don’t be surprised if that site tells you to wait on everything.

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WWDC, likely Apple’s next opportunity to announce new products this year, starts June 5, 2017. Source: Apple.com, click image to learn more about WWDC.

There’s only one scenario in recent tech history where waiting was not only not rewarded, but outright punished. This past week, Nintendo announced that they have discontinued production of their surprise Holiday 2016 hit, the NES Classic. Those who didn’t wait in line or jump through the typical “Early Adopter” hoops for it aren’t going to get to be Bandwagoners for this one. At this point, one can only hope that Nintendo will release a “Version 2.0” follow-up edition (perhaps including Super Nintendo games, or even the ability to download and install games legally?). With the focus shifting to Nintendo’s even bigger hit, the Switch, it’s more likely that Nintendo aren’t thinking about any further “Classic” offerings for a while. But hey, maybe they’ll surprise us. We’ll just have to… wait.


 

Finally, there is a fifth category I’d like to bring up:

5. The Archaeologist

There’s waiting, and then there’s WAITING. This category is mostly populated with hobbyists who have their “daily driver” computer or whatnot; but they seek out “vintage” (or to put it less kindly, “obsolete”) devices with the aim to restore them to original release condition… even if that original release was in the 90’s, 80’s, or even earlier. Sometimes, they see what they can do to augment the original hardware with more modern features, like adding a Solid State Drive (SSD) to devices never built with such a drive in mind, like an iPod from 2002. It’s nowhere near practical, but it can be entertaining to watch them succeed—and just as entertaining, if not more so, when they fail.


For your viewing pleasure, here are David “The 8-Bit Guy” Murray…

…and Ian “Druaga1” Anderson. You may not want to try these at home.


 

What category to do you fall into? Do you have to have the latest gadget before everyone else? Do you know to “never buy a console at launch?” Have you never paid launch-day prices? Or do you not care about such things, and you buy what’s available when you need it (and not a second earlier)? Each position has its merits. And sadly, each has its pitfalls. I think the best course of action is to “pick your battles.” That is to say, some devices merit rushing out and grabbing them on day one (I, for one, have no regrets standing in line outside Best Buy for my Nintendo Switch). On the other hand, most of my other tech purchases have put me firmly in the “Bandwagoner” or even “Waiter” categories. And I’m fine with that.

I mean, until they announce what’s coming out next. ◼︎

Nintendo’s Gone USB? Now, There’s a Switch!

A confession: I almost didn’t get this blog post out in time, because I’ve been immersed in the massive world of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, on my new Nintendo Switch. I’m not going to go into detail about how I had to wait in line for a few hours on launch night to get mine–those who pre-ordered would admonish me for poor planning, and those who didn’t get theirs when they wanted feel bad enough as it is.

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One of the many launch-night lines. Mario’s got to be wondering why none of the cameras are pointing at him. Source: GoNintendo.com

This week’s post is about the surprising move to the increasingly mainstream USB-C connection standard for the Switch’s charger. Faithful readers may remember my discussion of the new USB-C connector when Apple incorporated it—and nothing else—into their latest MacBook Pro at the end of 2016. Does this mean the days of having to pack multiple chargers and cables are at an end? Well, maybe.

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The USB-C charging port at the bottom of the Switch. Source: CNet.com, click photo for their article, “Zelda at 30,000 feet: Playing the Nintendo Switch on a plane.”

It’s true that the Switch does get its power from a USB-C AC adapter. When placed in its included dock, the power cord fits in a compartment in the back, hidden by a discreet plastic panel. The other end is a beefy transformer brick, so make sure you have room on your power strip or wall outlet for it. To be safe, I invested in APC’s P11VT3 SurgeArrest Surge Protector, with its six widely-spaced outlets.

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So much room for activities! Source: APC.com, click photo for more info.

But what if I didn’t want to use Nintendo’s included power brick?

It’s not an entirely absurd question. The charm of the Switch is that it is entirely portable, as much a successor to Nintendo’s Game Boy and DS handhelds, as it is to their Wii and Wii U set-top consoles. When out of the tabletop dock, the Switch charges off a USB-C port on its bottom. Nintendo’s thinking, I’d wager, is that gamers who plan on traveling with their Switch in “handheld” mode will leave their dock plugged in to the home power outlet; and that those gamers will invest in a second Nintendo Switch charging brick to keep in their officially-licensed Switch Carrying Case while on-the-go.

And that is indeed a solution, if a bit clunky.

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The official Switch charging brick. Note that the cable is not removable. Source: SlashGear.com, click photo for their “Switch Buyer’s Guide.”

The dream of USB charging is only to have to carry one power brick, and only one charging cable. The cable is a separate piece in this dream, because you may need to use it to sync data between devices while not charging. USB is a multi-faceted standard, after all. The problem as I see it comes from the power needs of the various devices that employ USB-C chargers.

Let’s start with that MacBook Pro from last year. The 13-inch model uses a 61 Watt power adapter, and the 15-inch model uses an 87 Watt adapter. Their little sibling, the 12-inch MacBook from 2015 and 2016, uses a 29 Watt USB-C adapter. Apple’s official line is that the higher-wattage adapter will work just fine on devices with smaller power demands, but not vice versa. That is to say, go ahead and charge the 12- or 13-inch laptops with that 87 Watt 15-inch adapter, but don’t try to juice up your 15-inch laptop with only 29 or 61 Watts.

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Apple’s 87W USB-C Power Adapter, cable sold separately (of course it is). Source: notebookcheck.com

Okay, great, so I can use that charger on my Switch?

To determine the Switch’s power needs, a little electrical engineering math is required. The official Switch AC adapter outputs between 5 and 15 Volts at 2.6 Amps (most likely depending on whether the Switch is docked or not). Multiplying 15 by 2.6 gets 39 Watts, so the MacBook Pro adapters—be they 61 or 87 Watts—should make short work of delivering power to anything that needs less than that.

One mustn’t ignore those pesky Amps, though. The power supply you want to use must match or exceed your device’s needs, both in power (Wattage) and electric current (Amperage). My 29W MacBook adapter, for example, outputs either 14.5V at 2.0A if the attached device supports the USB Power Delivery (USB PD) standard; or 5.2V at 2.4A if it doesn’t.

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The “West Virginia” Formulas. Source: twoicefloes.com.

The Switch, as discussed in this Reddit thread, does indeed support USB PD. Since the Switch charges best at 2.6A or higher, my MacBook charger just falls short of the current needs; but it’s also about 10W shy on the power front, so it’s a non-starter either way.

That 87W MacBook Pro charger, on the other hand, delivers a maximum of 20V at 4.3A. Unless something goes horribly wrong, the Switch’s circuitry is smart enough to pull only as much power as it needs, at the highest current it can handle. The 87W charger can deliver all 15V and 2.6A without breaking a sweat. So that will work for your USB-C-equipped MacBook (or Pro), as well as your Switch.

But what if you want to use a multi-port charger?

This is where it gets tricky. In my living room, I have an Anker PowerPort Speed 5 USB Charger in a convenient spot next to my couch. This lets me juice up my phone, plus any other four USB-charged devices I can think of. For reference, my iPhone 7 comes with a 5W charger: 5V at 1A, so I’m in good shape as long as the PowerPort delivers at least that much per port.

From Anker’s website: “The Speed Series was created for one single purpose: To deliver the fastest charge possible to any and all USB devices.”

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Anker’s PowerPort Speed 5 USB Charger. Source: Anker.com.

Utilizing Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0 power delivery standard, the PowerPort outputs between 3.6 and 6.5V at 3A (19.5W); between 6.5 and 9V at 2A (18W); or between 9 and 12V at 1.5A (again, 18W). Insufficient to juice up my Switch (which, for the record, does not support Quick Charge or Dash Charge, according to this write-up.)

The PowerPort is split up, with two QC3.0 ports (the blue ports in the photo above), and three “PowerIQ™” ports. The PowerIQ™ ports output 5V at 4.8A, with a limit of 2.4A per port. Again, not enough Voltage, not enough Amperage. I mean, it’s fine for my iPhone, just not for my Switch.

That’s fine. I expect to have to upgrade some of my charging accessories when I get a new gadget (remember that new surge strip I bought?). So I went back to Anker’s website to see what they could do for me and my Switch.

I started with their PowerPort 5 USB-C (below).

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Anker’s PowerPort 5 USB-C. Source: Anker.com.

 

 

From their spec list: “1 USB-C Port: 5V 3A max” This may actually do the trick, and here’s why: if you’ll recall, the Switch charger outputs between 5V and 15V. If I’m looking for a handy side-table solution for recharging the Switch when it’s out of its set-top dock, I may only need 5V; and since 2.6A is the current requirement, the PowerPort’s 3A spec meets that requirement, as well.

I was feeling adventurous, so I perused the rest of Anker’s selection, to see if they offered any USB charging solutions with higher Voltage. Their PowerPort+ 5 USB-C with USB Power Delivery outputs between 5V and 15V at 3A, or 20V at 2.25A, a maximum of 45W in any scenario.

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Anker’s PowerPort+ 5 USB-C with USB Power Delivery. Source: Anker.com.

I feel more confident ordering the PowerPort+, since it boasts USB PD support (just like the Switch, and even my MacBook charger). My rule of thumb is to match as many of the “manufacturer’s accessory” specs as possible, and this does just that.

Interestingly, Anker currently doesn’t sell any chargers with more than one USB-C port. I kind of get it. It’s still a new technology, and they’d certainly want to avoid any further problems with the spec, like they had last August.

But some of us also want to recharge our Nintendo Switch Pro Controller (sold separately, of course), which also uses a USB-C port!

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The Switch Pro Controller, shown with its USB-C cable attached on top. Source: CNet.com.

I imagine in most scenarios, the Pro Controller will charge on the side table (off that PowerPort+, for example); while the Switch sits docked across the room, by the TV. When it’s time to leave the house, the Switch comes out of its dock and the Pro Controller stays home. The Switch can then travel with its own one-port charger—be it from Nintendo, or another reliable supplier (as long as that charger meets the specs); or a multi-port charger, again, like the PowerPort+.

Anker’s chief rival in the USB charging space, Aukey, does offer a charging station with two USB-C ports, the Amp USB-C 6-Port Charging Station with Quick Charge 3.0.

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Aukey’s 2-USB-C Charging Station. Aukey colors their QC ports green, as opposed to Anker’s blue ports. Source: AliExpress.com.

But look at the specs from Aukey’s site:

(Quick Charge 3.0): 3.6V-6.5V 3A   |   6.5V-9V 2A   |   9V-12V 1.5A

Remembering that the Switch (and by extension, its Pro Controller) does not support QC3.0, you’re probably not going to get that 6.5V/3A charge from either port.

For now, if you want a multiple-port solution that can charge a Switch OR its Pro Controller (but not both at the same time), I’m recommending the Anker PowerPort+ 5 USB-C with USB Power Delivery. If you only need one port, you might as well stick with Nintendo’s own charger.

One final word of warning: since USB-C is still so new; and since it’s always tempting to get the least-expensive cable you can; make sure you get a trustworthy USB-C cable to plug into your new charger, whatever you plan on powering. A good place to start is http://bensonapproved.com. From their website:

All USB Type-C (USB-C) Cables and Accessories are not created equal. Some will charge most efficiently, others might just fry your battery. Google Chromebook engineer and Caped Cable Crusader Benson Leung has been testing USB Type-C (USB-C) cables off Amazon, and it’s not just the no-brand products that have been failing. Benson’s campaign mostly consists of ordering USB Type-C (USB-C) cables off Amazon, testing them to see if they meet the minimum standards or if they’re just knock-offs, and then leaving Amazon reviews. Cables and chargers fail in all sorts of different ways, although incorrect resistors seem to be a common problem that Benson’s been finding. bensonapproved.com lists all USB Type-C (USB-C) Cables and Accessories approved by Benson. For more info follow us on Twitter @bensonapproved or contact us at bensonapproved@gmail.com.

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Benson Leung, Standards Upholder. Not a bad example to set. Source: ComputerWorld.com.

For the record, here are Benson’s recommended USB-C to USB-C cables.

So that’s this week’s post. If you’ve already gotten your Switch (or it’s on the way), I hope this post proves useful, and you can enjoy your new Nintendo system worry-free. After all, from one Zelda fan to another, “It’s dangerous to go alone.”

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Now, more than ever. Source: SecretToEverybody.com.

 

Oh, and if you refuse to get a new console when it first comes out, then this video is for you:

 

I Sing of Monitor Arms…

One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to de-clutter my home office. My IKEA Galant desk is quite large; and yet, I never seem to have enough space to get my work done. In fact, full disclosure: I’m writing this blog post on my kitchen table. So if I wanted to get back to my office to get work done, I was going to have to move things around.

The first big change was getting rid of my behemoth Mac Pro tower. In fact, I’ve put it on eBay (auction closing this Wednesday, Jan. 11), so that’s one space hog eliminated. But there’s a compulsion that emerges when you clear off desk space: you want to clear off even more!

Arm Yourself

One of the most effective ways to free up space on your desk is to lift your computer monitor off and suspend it over your desk, or off to the side, via a monitor arm. These mount to the back of the monitor and typically clamp to the edge of the desk, leaving the rest of the surface wide open. I had a great flexible arm from Siig that I wanted to use with my 27″ Apple LED Cinema Display from 2010. The Siig arm specs said it supports monitors up to 27″; so, perfect, right?

Not quite.

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Siig’s Articulating Monitor Desk Mount – 13″ to 27″ (Source: Siig.com)

Mounting Difficulties

The first obvious issue is that Apple continues to march to its own drummer. In this case, their monitors do not support the mounting standard from the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA). VESA mounts use four screws in a square or rectangular formation. For example, the Siig arm is designed to fit 75mm and 100mm square patterns. If you check the back of your flatscreen PC monitor, you may spot those four holes on the back. The Apple LED Cinema Display does not have those holes. But I wasn’t yet so desperate that I was reaching for my drill, thankfully.

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VESA mounting holes on the back of a monitor. (Source: multi-monitors.com)

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Apple’s LED Cinema Display, sans VESA holes. (Source: CNet.com, click photo for their 2010 review of this monitor.)

Anticipating users’ desires to mount their monitors to arms and other VESA mounts, Apple manufactured a VESA Mount Adapter Kit.  The first difficulty (of what would turn out to be many) came in finding this kit new at retail. After scouring the web for Apple part number MD179ZM/A, I finally found a reputable retailer who had it in stock: PCConnection.com.

So once I had the kit, I was able to remove the built-in stand from my display (no small feat, per Apple’s instructions) and attach the VESA mount. Here’s a video from YouTuber Geoff Tripoli, showing the installation:

From there, I attached my Siig arm and set it up on my desk. And that’s when the monitor—and my spirits—sank.

While Siig’s arm does indeed claim support for displays up to 27″ (measured diagonally), what I didn’t account for was its weight limit: up to 22 lbs. The LED Cinema Display weighs in at 23.5 lbs; and while that’s not a huge difference, it was certainly enough to tip the screen forward, rendering it unusable for my purposes.

I was in too deep at this point to give up; I had desk space to reclaim, dammit! So I did some digging, and I found a VESA monitor arm that specifically boasted support for the heavy Apple Cinema Displays: Ergotech’s Freedom Arm™ line.

I made sure this time to read the fine print: the basic Freedom Arm™ only supports displays weighing up to 17.8 lbs., a dealbreaker. But they have two other arms that can handle up to 30.8 lbs: the Freedom Arm™ HD, and the Freedom Arm™ iMac® 2007-2011. Knowing that the LED Cinema Display is structurally identical to the iMac from that era, I selected the latter arm and prepared to make my purchase. But then I took a second look.

Specifically, I read their instructions (always a good idea before making a tech purchase, whenever you can).  The way the Freedom Arm™ iMac® 2007-2011 is designed, the arm attaches directly to the back of the display, eliminating the need for the Apple VESA Mount Adapter Kit. While I applaud their ingenuity and generosity—saving customers the cost and hassle of buying that extra part!—I decided not to get that model, and here’s why:

  1. After a fair bit of hunting, I now owned the VESA Mount Adapter Kit; and I didn’t want to go through the hassle of returning it.
  2. If I decided to change out arms (or perhaps use a wall mount) in the future, I was going to need Apple’s VESA kit after all; and it’s only getting harder to find over time.
  3. If I were to replace the Apple LED Cinema Display with a different screen, owning an arm custom-designed for just that one model wouldn’t be very forward-thinking. I try to make my upgrades as “future-proof” as possible.

Luckily, Ergotech makes a standard VESA arm for heavier displays: The Freedom Arm™ HD. I ordered this one, and notwithstanding some frustrations with FedEx trying to deliver on New Year’s Eve, I got it in a relatively timely manner from Amazon (click the link below to order):

Ergotech Freedom Arm HD (FDM-HD-S01) 

Once again, I attached the arm to my VESA-enabled LED Cinema Display. This time, I’m happy to say, nothing drooped. The arm supports the weight like a champ.

Here’s a video review from the YouTubers at NOBA TECH:

I was very pleased with the look and feel of the arm, and thrilled with the liberated desk space. But all was not quite perfect, yet.

An Arm with an Achilles Heel

The Freedom Arm™ HD is a very tightly built mechanism. I have no worries about the joints slipping or drooping. However, this tightness has a drawback. With normal vibration on the desk (say, for example, typing or mousing), the suspended monitor now jiggles to a distracting degree. Indeed, this phenomenon comes up in an Amazon review:

They do tend to jiggle a tiny bit when I type on my desktop, but I think that’s something unavoidable with an arm as long as this.

I was experiencing more than a “tiny bit” of jiggle. I called Ergotech customer service, and spoke with a gracious, patient representative, “Meg.” She was surprised to hear about the jiggling, as my call was the first she had ever heard about that happening. Her advice was to mount the arm to a different desk. And I’m inclined to agree.

My current desk, an IKEA Galant table from about 2003, is of particleboard construction. It’s sagging in the middle, and attaching a VESA arm may just be too much for it to handle at this point. I have therefore begun the quest to replace the desk with one that can support the arm with minimal (or nonexistent) screen jiggle; sturdy, all-wood construction; and a fixed or adjustable height that can allow me to work while standing. After all, “sitting is the new smoking!”

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An IKEA Galant desk used to the utmost. (Source: Redditor dave2kdotorg, click photo for his post.)

Conclusion?

I’ll post the conclusion of this saga as soon as I’ve found the best desk to meet my needs (so it may not be as soon as next week). In the meantime, I’ve removed the Ergotech arm and VESA Mount Adapter Kit from my LED Cinema Display; I’ve restored the display to its original stand (another surprisingly arduous process); and I’m making do with the sagging Galant desk. And on the floor of my office, is a brand-new, shiny arm.

And I swear, it’s giving me the finger. ■

My New Best Buds

Happy New Year! In the spirit of putting my best foot forward, I am happy to report that I have achieved closure on one of my lingering items from 2016… no, I still haven’t found a Nintendo Classic. At this point, I may as well set my sights on its rumored successor, the Super Nintendo Classic.

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Come on, Nintendo. One heartbreak at a time. (Source: @trademark_bot on Twitter)

This loose thread from last year involves my quixotic quest to find the perfect wireless earbuds. In my Dec. 12 posting, I touched upon my experiences with earbuds from Sol Republic and Jabra. Neither brand impressed me, nor had models from Plantronics and Jaybird, which I also tried out. In fact, while I was patiently waiting for Apple to release its AirPods, only one brand met my demands for comfort and functionality: Skybuds, by Alpha Audiotronics, Inc.

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Alpha’s Skybuds, enlarged to show detail. (Source: Skybuds.com)

The size and shape were a perfect fit, and the sound quality was great… once I was able to pair them to my iPhone 6S. Out of the box, the setup process was arduous, to say the least. I had to install the Skybuds iOS app, and then, pairing each bud was a fussy process. Sometimes Left would pair without a problem but Right wouldn’t show up; sometimes vice versa; and sometimes neither bud would appear at all. To resolve these issues, Skybuds had a software update I needed to get before I could continue. The update told me it would take three hours to download. Three. Hours. Several times during the download, it would drop the connection and I would have to resume. Luckily it didn’t start over at the beginning of the three hours, but each pause was an unwelcome interruption.

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This tour was only supposed to be three hours, too. (Source: Parade.com)

Once the software was updated and the Skybuds successfully paired in tandem, the listening experience was great. And it had better be, at $249.99 retail*. This was my new gold standard for wireless earbuds, even with the setup headache. Apple was going to have a pretty high bar to cross, whenever their long-awaited AirPods would arrive.

And then they arrived.

I had gotten the Skybuds on 12/12, just after posting my blog about my false starts with other brands. Precisely one week later, on 12/19, my local Apple Store notified me that the AirPods I wanted, and for which I had put my name on a waiting list in September, had finally arrived. I didn’t immediately return the Skybuds; I wanted to try out the AirPods before deciding on a “keeper.” So I bought the AirPods over the phone–mustn’t risk their selling out before I got to the store!–and went to pick them up.

 

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And I didn’t even have to wait in line. (Source: MacRumors.com, click photo for their article on the AirPods release.)

 

The setup process isn’t much to describe. I opened the box in the store, opened the charging case, and the AirPods automatically paired with my iPhone 6S. No app downloads, no three-hour updates. I was reminded of the simplicity of adding components to my first Mac, after switching from a Windows PC over a decade ago. “You mean, that’s it?” I thought to myself. And the answer was a resounding yes… and no.

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For real, that’s the process. (Source: CNet.com, click the animated GIF for their article on how easy it is to set up the AirPods.)

Listening to iTunes or Spotify sounded great with both AirPods in. They even stayed in my ears when I would move my head around, despite this satirical take from Conan O’Brien:

So they sounded good, they paired easily, and they fit well–in my ears, at least. What was left?

 

Despite all the positives, AirPods didn’t get along perfectly with my iPhone 6S, when I tried to have a phone call (fun fact for my younger readers: the iPhone, in addition to supporting email, web, and texting functions, also works as a telephone!). With both AirPods in my ears, paired to my iPhone 6S, the bluetooth would disconnect, forcing the call back to the phone’s built-in speaker. I looked into this issue, and apparently the glitch was even worse for some users, ending the call altogether.

In a recent post at AppleToolBox.com, the topic of “iPhone Airpods Disconnecting Calls” came up.  It appears that I was not the only one having difficulty maintaining a phone conversation with both AirPods in. Indeed, with that hypothesis in mind, I began taking calls with only one AirPod, reminiscent of the classic one-ear bluetooth earpieces of years past. This was not an ideal solution, but at least I could have my calls without worrying about losing the audio, or the call outright.

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Using only one AirPod? I suppose there are worse things I could have done…

According to that Apple Tool Box article, “Currently, the issue appears to affect iPhone 6S and 6S Plus more often than other iPhone models.” I’m not totally surprised. It’s no secret that the AirPods were intended to be a companion piece for the brand-new iPhone 7.

It’s the first iPhone without a headphone jack, remember?

At the end of the year, I upgraded to the iPhone 7. Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program lets me swap out iPhones each year, when the new model becomes available, so it would have been silly not to trade in my 6S (known to have problems with AirPod calls) for a 7. And for readers who recall my frustration with Mophie for not making a Juice Pack battery case that supported the 7, they finally released a compatible case. Everything was in place.

jpa-ip7-blk_blk-ip_front-back-left-3qtr_2000px

It’s essentially the same as the Juice Pack Air for the 6/6S, but with a larger opening for the camera (upper left); and of course, no opening at the bottom for a headphone jack. (Source: Mophie.com)

After several days of testing, I can confidently say that the AirPods have none of the difficulties with the iPhone 7 that they had with the 6S. Songs, videos, and even phone calls sound great in stereo from start to finish. But the last lingering question remains: “Are AirPods better than Skybuds?”

AirPods sound just as good. In my ears, they’re just as comfortable. They’re much, much easier to set up. They’re fully supported by Apple; so if I have a problem with the connection, it’s one trip to the Genius Bar to see if the problem is with the AirPods, or with the iPhone. And it should be noted that they retail for $159.00, as much as $90* less than the Skybuds. For all those reasons, if you have an iPhone 7, AirPods get my full recommendation. If you’re still on an older iPhone (particularly the 6S or 6S Plus), save your money, at least until Apple can properly address the issue with phone calls. Heck, just use wired headphones while you still have an available jack for them!

* UPDATE: At publication time, it appears Skybuds have gone down in price to $219.99.

The Tireless Search for Wireless Earbuds

I hate coming to this blog empty-handed. My NES Classic non-review still haunts me as a personal and professional disappointment. With that experience behind me, I was hoping for more success with my hunt for new headphones.

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Pictured: My NES Classic.

This quest actually began before Apple announced that their next iPhone wouldn’t support traditional wired headphones. My Mophie Juice Pack case limits the access to the iPhone 6S’s headphone port, but they make a special adapter cable (about 2.5″ long) that lets any wired headphones connect through the case. One night not too long ago, during my nightly walk, the Mophie adapter cable kinked just a bit too far in my pocket, and the internal conductor snapped. I could no longer listen to my iPhone with standard wired headphones.

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Mophie’s recessed headphone jack (above), and the adapter required to plug into it. Source: techguide.com.au

I took it as a sign, since very soon after this happened, Apple took the headphone jack away altogether from their next phone. I concluded that I shouldn’t spend any more time or money on “legacy” equipment that, while effective for using wired headphones on an iPhone 6S, would be useless on a 7. So my attention turned toward wireless solutions.

When Apple unveiled the iPhone 7, they also announced their own stereo wireless earbuds, the AirPods. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, these AirPods have yet to hit store shelves; in fact, since missing their announced “Late October 2016” launch window, no new street date has even been announced. I may eventually get those AirPods, but I’ve got walking to do in the meantime. And I can’t walk without my tunes.

apple-airpod-laydown

Until a realistic street date is announced, the AirPods (above) are nothing more than “vaporware.”

Wireless stereo headphones come in two styles: connected and separate. The connected headphones are often wired to each other by a thin cable, but sometimes there’s a thick middle piece that wraps around the neck or back of the head. My own comfort preferences led me toward the separate form factor. At this point, I’ve tried out two models of separate earbuds: the Sol Republic Amps Air, and the Jabra Elite Sport.

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Connected headphones, in many shapes and sizes. Not the best for running, in my opinion. Source: bestbuy.com

For those of you looking for a quick conclusion, here’s the TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) upshot: I’ve returned the Sol Republic set to the store, and the Jabra is going back, too. Neither were especially comfortable (a risk one runs when all the electronics have to be crammed into the individual earpieces with no external modules). And while the Sol Republic set’s sound quality was too tinny to justify a $150 price tag, at least I could hear my Spotify playlist in both ears. My attempt to “road test” the $250 Jabra set was hampered by an inability of the left bud to produce any sound at all. And the whole point of stereo earbuds is to avoid looking like “that guy” with the bluetooth headset in one ear.

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Sol Republic Amps Air. Source: solrepublic.com

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Jabra Elite Sport earbuds. Source: jabra.co.uk 

It’s funny, now that I’ve tried these two sets for myself, I can understand Apple’s hesitation to release their own wireless earbuds too early. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal (shared via Macrumors.com), the sound quality–particularly distortion-free stereo sound–didn’t meet Apple’s high standards. And that may be true (although manufacturing problems may also or instead be contributing to the delay); but it’s very frustrating for those who jumped to the new iPhone 7 (or those of us about to), counting on wireless earbuds to complement their new wireless phone audio experience.

I’m not sure what earbuds I’ll try next. Samsung makes a set, the Gear IconX; but the salesman actually discouraged me from picking it originally, because I wouldn’t be pairing it with a Samsung phone. I may decide to live on the edge and try it out, regardless. And if it works better than the other brands, you’ll be hearing from me.

I just hope I can hear from it. ◼︎

Thunderbolt 3? USB Kidding Me!

On October 27, Apple announced their new MacBook Pro will be equipped with only one kind of data port: Thunderbolt 3.

From Apple’s Thunderbolt page:

“Thunderbolt 3 offers a connection with state-of-the-art speed and versatility. Delivering twice the bandwidth of Thunderbolt 2, it consolidates data transfer, video output, and charging in a single, compact connector. And with the integration of USB-C, convenience is added to the speed of Thunderbolt to create a truly universal port.”

So, that’s Thunderbolt 3… and Thunderbolt 2… and USB-C? Huh?

Let’s break down some of these interfaces, starting with their shapes.

PLUG #1

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The USB Type A Connector. Source: Wikipedia

USB’s Type A connector is rectangular, 15.7mm wide by 7.5mm tall. It’s often difficult to tell which way is “up,” so it’s sometimes necessary to flip the plug to connect it correctly.

THE STANDARD

Universal Serial Bus (USB), first released in January 1996.

THE SPECS

usb

Many USB 3 plugs use color coding to distinguish them from older, slower 2.0 cables. Keep an eye out for a blue tip.

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The blue tip indicates this is a USB 3 cable. Source: Wikipedia


PLUG #2

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Source: Startech.com

This connector is narrower than USB-A, at 7.5mm wide by 4.6mm tall. It has beveled edges at the bottom of the plug, making it a little easier to eyeball which way it needs to go into the port.

In addition to the plug’s shape, markings on the connector may indicate which standard the cable in question follows: Apple’s Mini DisplayPort; or Thunderbolt, co-developed by Intel and Apple. The easiest way to tell a Thunderbolt cable from a Mini DisplayPort cable is to look for the “bolt” symbol on the plug:

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The Thunderbolt logo indicates that this is more than just a Mini DisplayPort cable. Source: MacWorld.com

A Mini DisplayPort plug may not have any markings on it, or it may have the “display” logo on the plug:

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Likewise, this should only be used to connect a monitor to a Mini DisplayPort on your computer. Source: Wikipedia

THE STANDARDS

Mini DisplayPort, first released in 2008; and Thunderbolt, first released in 2011.

Apple embraced Mini DisplayPort as their monitor connection of choice, starting with their late 2008 notebooks, and then into their 2009 desktops. The only latecomer of their notebooks was the 17″ MacBook Pro, which featured Mini DisplayPort in early 2009.

Thunderbolt, which provided the monitor connection as well as high-speed data rates for hard drives and multi-port docks, replaced Mini DisplayPort on Macs in early 2011. By late 2013, it was standard on all Macs except the 2015 MacBook (more on that model in a bit).

A computer’s Thunderbolt port is backward-compatible with Mini DisplayPort cables and displays, but not vice versa. For example, Apple’s now-retired 27″ LED Cinema Display (produced from 2010 to 2013) will work in either Mini DisplayPorts or Thunderbolt ports, but their almost identical-looking Thunderbolt Display (2011-2016) will only work in a Thunderbolt port.

THE SPECS

dptb

Featuring twice the speed of its predecessor, Thunderbolt 2 came standard on the late 13” and 15” 2013 MacBook Pro Retina models; the late 2013 Mac Pro cylinder; the late 2014 Mac mini; and the 11” and 13” Early 2015 MacBook Air. The MacBook has never included Thunderbolt (again, more on that model in a moment).

So at this point, around 2013, we have two plug shapes, with two formats now capable of delivering 10 Gigabits per second, or more. USB 3 was backward-compatible with its previous versions, and Thunderbolt 2 was backward-compatible with Thunderbolt 1 and Mini DisplayPort.

And then, in 2014, the shape of things changed, yet again. Enter USB Type C.

NOTE: For the purposes of this post, I’m skipping past USB Type B, which is just the house-shaped plug often found at the other end of a standard USB cable. It’s the end that plugs into a printer, a desktop hard drive, or other peripherals.


PLUG #3

usbc

A USB-C cable. Source: LaptopMag.com

This is the dream, realized. A symmetrical plug, with no “wrong” way to plug it in.

Apple did beat USB to the punch in 2012 with their proprietary, symmetrical Lightning connector, but that was only utilized by the iPods, iPads, and iPhone of the time, onward. It was never featured as an interface on any of Apple’s desktop or notebook computers.

And yes, “Thunderbolt” and “Lightning” is a confusing coincidence. 

USB Type C is actually quite similar to Lightning at first glance. USB-C is 8.3mm wide by 2.5mm tall, and Lightning measures 6.7mm wide by 1.5mm tall.

Apple hasn’t indicated any plans yet to replace Lightning with USB-C.

THE STANDARDS

USB-C first came on the scene in 2014, in the Nokia N1 tablet, initially released in China.

It provides the full data rates of USB 3.1 standard (SuperSpeed USB 10 Gbps), as well as the capability to charge mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets (such as the aforementioned Nokia N1).

While Apple sticks with Lightning for their iPhones and iPads for now, USB-C is becoming the go-to charging and data port for Android mobile devices from brands like LG, HTC, Asus, Lenovo; and it was the interface for the late, lamented, combustible Samsung Galaxy Note7 (but the general consensus is that the charging cable was not responsible for the fires: https://www.cnet.com/news/why-is-samsung-galaxy-note-7-exploding-overheating/)

https://www.cnet.com/videos/share/samsung-explains-what-went-wrong-with-exploding-note-7-battery/

Apple may be sticking to Lightning for iPhone and iPad for now, but they took a leap in April 2015 to USB-C as the sole port in their resurrected MacBook line.

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The first-ever Mac powered by USB. Source: abc.net.au

It was the first Mac to use the same port for data and for charging—a controversial move, as this meant no other peripherals could be plugged in while the computer was charging…unless users connected an adapter, such as the USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter (sold separately, of course).

Intel launched Thunderbolt 3 in June 2015, incorporating the increasingly popular USB-C plug shape, and retiring the old “Mini DisplayPort” connector.

THE SPECS

tb3

Much like how Thunderbolt 1 & 2 were backward-compatible with Mini DisplayPort; and how USB 3 Type A was backward-compatible with USB 2 and 1, Thunderbolt 3 is backward-compatible with USB-C devices (but not vice-versa).

So USB and Thunderbolt have now converged. The upshot is, all your USB and Thunderbolt devices will still work if you get a computer with Thunderbolt 3 ports… you’ll just have to buy new cables or adapters to plug them in. Alternatively, you could invest in a dock, such as this 13-port solution from OWC. It’s pricey, but it allows you to use your current peripherals and their own cables, instead of having to adapt each one for the new port shape.

Because this is the shape of things, now… at least, until a new standard comes out.

standards

◼︎

 

 

Halloween Spook-tacular: Don’t Fall for Scare Tactics!

In the Halloween spirit, I wanted to address what’s frightened some of my clients over the past few years: the “tech support” scam. It comes in two forms: a phone call, or a pop-up box on your computer screen.

The Call

Most commonly, this comes in the form of a phone call claiming to be from Microsoft, or even just “Windows,” or “Tech Support.” My advice is to err on the side of not believing them. The simple fact is that no computer company will ever call you unsolicited, no matter what shape your computer is in.

If you have any doubts, here is the actual number for Microsoft phone support: 1-866-425-4709. You can say to the scammer who’s called you, “Oh, thank goodness for your call, but I can’t talk right now. I’ll call Microsoft right back. I have the number.” Warning: they may curse you out or even threaten you, but remember that their phone center is likely on the other side of the globe. You can also just hang up, per the advice on this page: “What Should You Do About the Windows Tech Support Scam?”

Microsoft even now has a page to report a support scam: https://www.microsoft.com/en-US/reportascam//

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If they don’t say they’re Microsoft per se, here are the support numbers for some of the major PC manufacturers. Write yours down or print it, so you have the number handy:

Acer: 866-695-2237

Apple: 800-APL–CARE (800–275–2273)

Asus: 888-678-3688

Dell: 866-795-5597

HP: 800-752-0900

Lenovo: 855-253-6686

MSI: 888-447-6564

Samsung: 800-SAMSUNG (800-726-7864)

Sony: 888-476-6972

Toshiba: 800-457-7777

If your brand isn’t on this list, or if the number I’ve provided doesn’t work, please contact me so I can update the list.

Here’s one more resource, from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0346-tech-support-scams

The Pop-Up

A phone call is a nuisance, but when you know it’s a scam, it’s easy to end or ignore. A pop-up is more challenging, as, depending on the severity, it can interfere with your ability to use your computer altogether.

You can read about the various pop-up scams here: https://malwaretips.com/blogs/remove-tech-support-scam-popups/

In some cases, the pop-up is just a nuisance on your web browser resolved by quitting the browser and cleaning out your cache. You can refresh your cache following the steps here: http://www.refreshyourcache.com/en/home/

If it goes away but you’re still concerned, I recommend running your antivirus/anti-malware program of choice. On my Mac, I use BitDefender Virus Scanner. Mac users can download it for free here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/bitdefender-virus-scanner/id500154009?mt=12

Click the logo to download BitDefender for Mac from the Mac App Store.

Click the logo to download BitDefender for Mac from the Mac App Store.

In Windows, I regularly update and run MalwareBytes Anti-Malware, available for free download here: https://www.malwarebytes.com/mwb-download/thankyou/

Click the logo to download the program.

Click the logo to download the program.

If it comes back, follow the steps on the page I linked earlier: https://malwaretips.com/blogs/remove-tech-support-scam-popups/

Mac users have a similar procedure here: https://discussions.apple.com/docs/DOC-8071

You can also reach out to the FTC and file a complaint here: https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov

Click the logo to file a complaint with the FTC.

Click the logo to file a complaint with the FTC.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend calling a tech support provider you know and trust. I take comfort knowing that my clients know to call At Home With Technology first, before calling any other phone number they see.

Because it’s only fun to be scared when you want to be.

Happy Halloween!