Thoughts on the Apple Watch

I’ve been living with an Apple Watch for a month now (stainless steel case/Milanese loop band).  Overall, I think it’s great.  The most common criticism that I hear about Apple Watch is that there is no “killer app” that creates a compelling new product category.  This is absolutely true.  However, the real value of Apple Watch is the cumulative effect of its numerous and sometimes subtle features.

It’s the little things that count

Right off the bat, it’s easy to appreciate that the Watch is a beautifully crafted piece of jewelry (photos of the Milanese band don’t do it justice;  you need to see it sparkle in sunlight).  But it takes several days of wearing Apple Watch to get a full appreciation for its capabilities.

The best features of the Watch are not activated by direct user interaction but just seem to happen at appropriate times.  Case in point:  the first time I used the Map app on my iPhone to get driving directions I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I didn’t need to see or hear the phone to know when to turn.  The watch tapped my wrist with three double taps when I needed to turn left and with a steady series of twelve taps for right.

The Activity app won’t turn me into a marathon winner overnight but it succeeds in prodding me to do a little bit extra every day.  It sets daily goals for moving, exercise and standing.  Several evenings I found myself just short of goal right before bedtime and made up the difference with a quick exercise session.  This wouldn’t happened if the watch wasn’t giving me frequent encouragement (including virtual “awards”) to hit all my daily goals.

The Watch reminds me to stand if I’ve been sitting too long.  And it provides a weekly and periodic activity reports that encourage me to stay on top of my goals.  The cumulative effect of these little “nudges” should be a lighter, healthier me.

Size matters

It’s been reported that around 70% of the Apple Watches sold to date are the larger 42mm models.  I think the majority of the people people buying these are wrong for the following reasons:

  1. On all but the largest wrists, the 42mm case looks dorky.  There, I said it.  The 38mm watch has a more conventional size and looks elegant on both men and ladies.  But Apple doesn’t always make it easy for men with larger wrists to get a 38mm model that fits.  For example, if you’re a man in the market for a stainless steel Watch with the elegant Milanese loop band, you need to step up to the 42mm case (for an extra $50) if your wrist is larger than 180mm.  Apple should offer a large Milanese band option for the 38mm Watch.  Bigger guys who want a 38mm case with a stainless band will need to shell out an extra $300 to step up to the Link Bracelet.
  2. Yes, the larger watch has slightly better battery life.  But this is irrelevant because neither model will make it through two full days on a charge.  Whether you have a 38mm or 42mm watch, you will still need to take it off every night for charging.
  3. The larger screen doesn’t really offer much in terms of better ergonomics or readability.  I haven’t experienced any problems with the 38mm Watch recognizing exactly which object I’m trying to tap.

Some room for improvement

My main nit with the Apple Watch is that I need to rotate my wrist slightly more to activate it than I would to glance at a conventional watch.  It would be great if there was a user configurable sensitivity setting for the “Activate on Wrist Raise” feature.    With 40% power remaining after a typical day, I wouldn’t mind if the Watch sacrificed a little battery life to activate less conservatively.

According to Apple, the Watch and iPhone that it’s paired with are supposed to be able to communicate over a trusted WiFi network when they are out of Bluetooth range.  This doesn’t seem to work reliably in my house but it might have something to do with having multiple Ubiquiti long range access points installed (although this setup is seamless with all the other WiFi devices I use).

I’d prefer a thinner case, but to Apple’s credit, the Watch looks svelte next to most smart watches.  (Curiously, it looks thinner on my wrist than off).  I have no doubt that Apple will figure out a way to slim subsequent models down as they have done with every other device.

Apple should sell a proper charging stand for the Watch.  However, the Nomad Stand is an attractive option (albeit a tad expensive at $70 for a piece of twisted aluminum).

Minor gripes aside, the Apple Watch is a fabulous first generation product and I highly recommend it.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 first impressions

My office is replacing its aging fleet of HP 620 notebooks with Surface Pro 3  (256 GB, Intel Core i5) tablets.  Each tablet will be deployed with an optional keyboard cover and docking station.  This is the middle-of-the-road model, which is powerful enough to run most business applications but not suitable for more demanding video or graphic editing tasks.

The Surface Pro works well as a tablet replacement.  Although it’s somewhat clunky compared with Apple’s iPad, the build quality and overall feel are solid.  The built-in kickstand adjusts to a wide range of viewing angles and folds flat when not in use.  The power connector, which attaches magnetically similar to Apple’s MagSafe plug, is a bit awkward to plug in because of its width and the Surface’s beveled edge.  The sharp edges make the Surface Pro less comfortable to hold than an iPad.  The touchscreen is responsive and the display is bright with well saturated colors.

As a notebook replacement, the Surface Pro leaves a lot to be desired. The optional keyboard cover is both ingenious and frustrating.  The cover attaches magnetically.  Unlike the power connector, it attaches without any fuss and is easy to position even in dim light.  It can either lay flat or the back can be raised a bit by folding a section at its back. Both positions have flaws.  The tipped-up position achieves a more natural typing angle, but the not rigid enough keyboard cover flexes considerably.  The flexing disappears when the keyboard is in its flush position but I found it uncomfortable that way for long typing sessions. The trackpad is imprecise and I frequently found myself reaching for the touchscreen instead.

By no means should you call the Surface 3 Pro a laptop!  Trying to use the Surface on your lap is an exercise in discomfort and frustration.  The sharp edge of the kickstand digs into your legs and the keyboard cover flops around like a dead fish.  And you will look like a dork.

A stylus is included with the Surface Pro 3 but it isn’t particularly useful.  It took some considerable head scratching before I figured out that the stylus only works with Microsoft OneNote and a handful of apps.  I don’t see any good reason why it isn’t recognized by the general touchscreen interface.  The Surface doesn’t provide any place to stash the stylus.  If you buy the optional keyboard cover you get a flap of material with a loop to hold the stylus.  It has a self-stick backing that can be affixed to the cover but it looks goofy and would probably rip off after a week of use.

The docking station provides a full set of ports and comes with it’s own power brick.  It positions the tablet at a good viewing angle and has a conveniently located magnetized area along the left side to hold the stylus.  I struggled with inserting and removing the Surface from the docking station until I realized its sides slide in and out.  (Yeah, I know, RTFD, but there aren’t arrows or any other kind of visual cues.  This should be more intuitive.)

Overall, the hardware isn’t half bad.  However, the UI is a hot mess!   The Surface-specific annoyance is that the OS doesn’t automatically adjust when the keyboard cover is affixed or removed.  After disconnecting the cover and heading out without it, there was no way to unlock the tablet because the password field wouldn’t present a “soft keyboard.”  Conversely, I wasn’t able to connect and use the keyboard to finish a document that I started in tablet mode.

Other annoyances are just because the Surface Pro 3 runs Windows 8.1.  The GUI is wildly inconsistent and switches between “classic” Windows and the new Metro look depending on what you are doing.  This schizophrenic UI must be baffling to users migrating from Apple platforms!  I’m thinking about disabling Metro entirely so at least I can get a consistent user experience.

Bottom line: the Surface Pro 3 is a good choice if you’re looking for an ultra-mobile computer to leverage existing Microsoft licenses or mainly use Windows-only applications.  And you want the ability to use it as a touchscreen tablet.  Otherwise, the similarly sized 11-inch MacBook Air, which has a “real” keyboard and intuitive OS is worth a look.

An excellent SSD upgrade

I was tasked with upgrading 36 aging corporate desktop computers (HP model DC5700) to defer the next hardware refresh by 2-3 years.  Bumping the RAM to the maximum 4 GB didn’t result in a satisfactory speed improvement so I decided to explore Solid State Disk (SSD) options.

Users store their files on networked home directories, so there wasn’t any need to expand the PC storage much beyond the stock 80 GB.  Based on user reviews, size and price, the 120 GB Samsung 840 EVO-Series looked like a great fit. (These are also available in 250 GB, 500 GB and 1 TB capacities).  It’s 3-year warranty also aligned perfectly with the planned remaining life of the computers.

I fully expected to have a few issues to sort out on a test system before I could turn over the project to a junior tech for deployment.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover the bundled software is remarkably efficient and user-friendly:

  1. Boot Windows and log in as a local administrator
  2. Connect the SSD to the PC using a SATA to USB adaptor cable or drive enclosure
  3. Run Samsung’s Data Migration utility to copy the PC hard disk to the SSD
  4. Shutdown the PC and replace the hard disk with the SSD.  (Don’t waste money on a 2.5″ to 3.5″ mounting adapter.  A piece of double sided foam tape is all you need to secure the SSD).
  5. Run the Samsung Magician utility to tweak performance settings

Hands-on time was under five minutes per PC and it took around 20 minutes for the migration utility to copy everything off the hard disk.

The performance improvement is amazing.  Boot time reduced from 3+ minutes to under 30 seconds.  McAfee full antivirus scan, which previously rendered the PCs almost unusable when it was running, is now barely noticeable.

Tremendous bang for the buck and unconditionally recommended!!!

Best wax for a black car


If you have a black car like I do, you  already know that black paint shows every smudge, chip and swirl mark.  Over the years I’ve owned three black autos and only recently discovered a collection of products and an application process that produce what I would consider excellent results.

The key to getting a great shine on black paint is to clean the surface very thoroughly and then apply black tinted polish and wax in separate steps.

You will need to set aside the better part of a day to give your black car this “spa treatment”, but the results will be better than what many professional detailers charge hundreds of dollars to do.

Shopping list

  • Turtle Wax Black Box Kit. This kit consists of bottles of black tinted pre-wax cleaner (polish) and liquid carnauba wax, 2 bottles of detailing spray and 2 applicator pads.  Conventional wax dries white, highlighting imperfections and chips in the paint.  These products are all tinted black and perform wonderfully on black paint.  My only gripe is that both the polish and wax come in tall bottles with screw-off caps that are all too easy to over-apply or spill.  A wider bottle and/or a flow control nozzle would be huge improvements.  Oh, second gripe, the stuff is heavily perfumed.  My car really doesn’t need to smell like Fruit Loops!
  • Call me paranoid, but before rubbing polish into my car’s paint I want to be certain that the surface is absolutely clean and free of grit.  Pros like to use paint cleaning clay for this purpose and so do I.  Griot’s Garage makes a kit that includes the clay and a bottle of Speed Shine, which is great for touchups in-between washes. The Turtle Wax kit includes an inferior version of Speed Shine that I don’t use.
  • You’ll need a random orbital polisher to apply polish and wax.  The best one I’ve ever tried is manufactured by Griot’s Garage.  The tool is well balanced, light and sufficiently powerful.  It comes with either a 10-foot or 25-foot cord.  Although I agree with others that 10 feet isn’t long enough to get around a vehicle, I prefer to just attach an easy to replace extension cord to get the extra length. Make a square knot to keep the cords from decoupling.
  • Polish pads and wax pads for your orbital polisher.
  • Microfiber cloths for removing polish and buffing.  I highly recommend this 36-pack, which is an excellent value.
  • The Turtle Wax products will stain your skin and clothes!  Grab a box of disposable gloves if you don’t already have some.  And don’t let this product get anywhere near a nice paver or concrete driveway.  You will spill some.  Consider yourself warned!!


  1. Thoroughly wash your car using your favorite detergent.  When I’m polishing or waxing my car, I prefer to wash the wheels first and then make a new bucket of detergent for washing the rest of the car.  I really like inserts like this one that fit into the wash bucket, allowing any grit to settle to the bottom.
  2. Go over all painted surfaces with cleaning clay to remove contaminants.  Do one small area at a time.  Spray with Speed Shine to lubricate the surface, wipe with a wad of clay and buff dry with a microfiber cloth.
  3. I learned this trick too late in life.  Blast the car dry with a leaf-blower, followed up by a microfiber towel.
  4. Apply the Turtle Wax polish following the manufacturer’s instructions for machine application.  Orange pads and a speed setting of 1 on the Griot’s orbital tool work well.
  5. Buff off the polish with a microfiber cloth. A little spritz of Speed Shine hastens the job.
  6. Apply the wax using a red pad and speed setting of 1-1/2.  Buff off the wax using a microfiber cloth and Speed Shine.
  7. Pop open your favorite adult beverage and enjoy your work!

Switching between HDMI and analog audio on a Mac

Here’s a proven fix if you need both analog and HDMI audio outputs and require a way of switching between them.  In my case, I had an application where a rack mounted Mac Mini serves as both a media server and an audio source for a whole house paging system.

I first tried using the headphone output as an analog audio output.  The problem is that if anything is plugged into the headphone jack, it is not possible to select HDMI for sound output via the Sound preference panel or via any other means.  Various people have posted methods for outputting audio to both HDMI and headphone out simultaneously, but my application requires only one output to be active at any given time.

The hardware piece of the solution is a relatively cheap Turtle Beach USB DAC.  I’d imagine other USB audio converters would work equally well.

After plugging in the DAC, I confirmed that I could switch audio sources from the Sound preference panel.

The next step was to to automate the audio switching.  I found various Applescript techniques on the web for doing this by scripting the sound preference panel UI, but that approach seemed kludgy and probably slower than using a compiled command line tool.  If such a tool is included in OS X Mavericks, I couldn’t find it.  Fortunately, a generous developer created an output switching utility called audiodevice, which is available here.

Audiodevice works perfectly but has one minor quirk.  Some output devices have trailing spaces after their names, which need to be included in audiodevice commands.

Here is an example of a shell script that uses audiodevice to switch audio output from HDMI to USB DAC, plays a sound effect, outputs a string that was passed to it from the command line as text to speech, and then switches back to HDMI:

/usr/local/bin/Audiodevice/audiodevice output "USB Sound Device        "
/usr/bin/afplay "/Library/Audio/Apple Loops/Apple/iLife Sound Effects/Machines/Communication Engaged.caf"
say $1
/usr/local/bin/Audiodevice/audiodevice output "HDMI Matrix  "

Notice the spaces after USB Sound Device and HDMI Matrix.  If you are not using the Turtle Beach DAC, the USB DAC may have a different name.  Use the audiodevice output list command to get a list of the audio output devices installed on your Mac.