Saturday, November 16, 2019

Why The Corolla Hatchback Won My CarPlay with Manual Transmission Battle

For several years, I've been pondering replacing my 2003 Civic LX 5 speed sedan—with aftermarket CarPlay receiver. I was certain I was getting a Mazda 3, then I was equally sure I was getting a Subaru Impreza. I might have even gotten a Civic Si, my pondering went on so long. But, in the end, it was the Toyota Corolla XSE 6 speed manual that earned my money.

CarPlay

I was concerned with the non-standard, non-touch interface Mazda uses for their infotainment system. Toyota's implementation is standard, and I'd say nicer for a CarPlay user than Honda's as it has a lot of real buttons, including push buttons on the steering wheel to adjust volume. I've used the Honda system in my wife's CR-V many times, and it is awkward and doesn't make good use of space; consumers were glad to get so much as a real volume knob, and the swipe volume control on the steering wheel is touchy. I don't have any experience with the Subaru implementation, but it is probably fine. 

I did see an oddity, where much of the CarPlay interface was cut off,  making me have to plug and replug it. Still, it has been reasonably performant. 

Power Train

I'm convinced in the value of a simple power train. A turbo is just something easy to break that gets a few more horsepower I'm unlikely to use in practice. The 168 HP my Corolla generates is a little lower than a comparable Civic, and it's zero to sixty time might be half second less, but I get quick throttle response and I can use non-premium gas. This is similar to my avoidance of a CVT, which gets a noticeable better fuel economy, but seems mechanically complicated and easy to fail. I will say that living in New England, I would love to get an all wheel drive Impreza, but it would be mechanically more complicated and may be a little less peppy. Also, I'll be putting winter tires on this car and that's most of the battle against winter roads. I like the idea of the Mazda 3's engine, but I wasn't all that impressed with the gearing when I test drove a manual; and it was always prompting me to shift into a ridiculously—if fuel efficient—high gear. 

The boxer engine in the Subaru just seems to be an obsolete technology despite its advantages in smoothness and maintenance. 

The Corolla shifter is longer than I'd like, and it's taken be a while to get used to the grab point on the clutch, but it is in general a joy to use. Particularly liking the hold feature which makes uphill starts trivial; I'm likely to lose my ability to balance the clutch to the throttle. Also, rev matching is easy. So, even for a manual, it makes life easy. 

I don't want an auto-engine stop feature for that last smidge of gas mileage; talk about something that will kill a starter. 

Reliability

Everyone I've ever read highly rates Toyota has the king of reliability. I've dealt with oil leaks/burning for years on my otherwise beloved 7th generation Civic and I could use some reliability. In the end, this and the bad reputation of the local Mazda dealer, eliminated the Mazda 3.  I don't know if it makes a difference, but the Corolla is still made in Japan in factories with a long history. (Having said that, the door edge protecting plastic fell off the rear passenger door the first time my kids opened it, so that's worrying.)

Safety Tech

The Corolla gives a very complete set of safety features. The lane warnings are a bit annoying, but at least it doesn't bother with driver attention spying. I chose the higher XSE trim in large part because I often have shoulder problems making blind spot monitoring a life saver. It seems to be very comparable to the Honda safety features on the CR-V. Adaptive cruise control seems less touchy than the Honda. 

There are a wide variety of settings on the headlights. They are literally the only things I had to look up so far in the manual, I guess I'll just set them on auto with auto high beams. Regardless, they are plenty illuminating, but for some odd reason the adaptive headlights were only available with the Blue Flame paint color. 

Appearance

I think the Corolla Hatchback is the best looking of all the current Japanese Hatchbacks. The Mazda 3 sedan looks great, but the backend of the hatchback is a balloon. The Civic is just too angular for me. The Impreza is pretty nice, actually. 

Mine is in Galactic Aqua Mica, which is a lovely and varied color; sometimes it looks almost black, sometimes blue, and sometimes green. 

Value

As I bought it when the dealers were clearing out 2019 stock, and being the niche market of a manual, I got a pretty good deal of $19.4K which is way, way under MSRP. For me, this is an amazing value what with all the safety tech, the excellent fuel economy and how fun it is to drive. Nice value adds include: heated seats, fully automatic windows, two map pockets, rear center arm rest, driver lumbar support, telescoping steering wheel, electric mirrors, 2 years of maintenance, partial leather seats, and auto release parking brake. My particular car even came with all weather floor mats, wheel locks, and body side moldings. 

On the other hand, the cargo area is small, but I have a CR-V to use as a hauler. Center console storage is small. There is no standard tow package, so I can't easily add a hitch receiver bike rack. Nor are there available roof rails. Heated steering wheels are apparently only available in Canada. It's unclear if the 2019 models will get upgraded firmware to support Android Auto—not important to me, obviously. 

Things That Don't Matter

There is a lot of tech in the infotainment system that doesn't matter. It has a WiFi hub that you can subscribe to Verizon through: our phones and tablets all have unlimited data. It has SeriusXM: I have an account, and it is much easier to listen to content using the app, where I can skip over most of the commercials in FoxSports and listen to other non-live content.  Who is going to buy a Toyota navigation package when I have Apple Maps, Google Maps and Waze? For that matter, why would I bother with a bunch of soon to be stale Toyota versions of apps for services that already have well maintained CarPlay/iOS versions?

 I'd have been fine with 16" tires but wanted the other things in the XSE package so 18" wheels it is. People like to make fun of the fake exhaust tips, but they don't matter. 

Summary

I'm happy with my purchase. It took a lot of saving and a lot of pondering, but I finally got a car that is a happy successor to my dying Civic. 

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Thunderbolt Display Life Extension: An Environmental Proposal for Apple

I recently replaced the power supply and data cable on my Thunderbolt Display to keep it working with its 5th Mac.  I know from experience that the original cables go bad, especially from MacBook Air users having to put too much stress on the cable being plugged into both sides of that laptop.  I personally wore out 2 Apple original cables when the strain relief around the data cable failed. So time for a replacement. Although I could have just used the auxiliary Thunderbolt 2 port on the display, I was in refurbish mode, and was opening the display up anyway.

Here's the cable I found on Amazon. Like the original it has a MagSafe 1 power connector and a Thunderbolt via Mini DisplayPort data connector. Which would be great, if I still used a 2015 MacBook Pro.
Thunderbolt Display Cable Replacement
But I have a 2018 MacBook Pro which has no MagSafe and has 4 Thunderbolt over USB-C ports. So, I purchased a separate Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3 adaptor from Apple for $49: 
Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2
Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 Adaptor

And I had to provide my own $79 power supply, despite the fact that I now have a new 250W power supply in my Thunderbolt Display which would be perfectly capable (I would think) of driving both the display and my laptop. 

I could have ripped the whole cable out and replaced. it with a Thunderbolt 2 cable, as the inside connector is just a Mini DisplayPort jack, just like the other end. I could have even put a short Thunderbolt 2 cable inside the case, attached to the adaptor and brought out a Thunderbolt 3 cable through the opening in the case, but I wouldn't have power over that cable. What I want is a one cable solution. 

Here is my proposal to Apple. Create a replacement cable assembly that ends up with a powered Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port embedded in the opening currently occupied by the MagSafe/Thunderbolt 2 cable. Enough with embedded cables that go bad with inadequate strain relief. Put a port in the back of the display to make it easy to replace future cables. Charge $129 for it, and I will buy one, I promise. 

Apple is always claiming to lead the way environmentally, but they are allowing 100's of thousands of otherwise functional monitors to go out of use before their they have to. They don't even sell a monitor in this price region anymore.  They brag about using "recycled" aluminum in their lower end products, but have this golden opportunity to keep equipment working and not being recycled and landfilled.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Chirping Thunderbolt Display, Time for a New Power Supply

My Thunderbolt Display started chirping when attached to a computer a few months ago, and then a few weeks ago, it out and out died.

Now, I am fully aware that this monitor is extremely obsolete with its USB 2 ports, moderate resolution and Thunderbolt 2 connectivity. But, it is still an attractive, accurate monitor with lots of connectivity. So, I deemed it worth it to spend $139 on a replacement power supply. Also needed some suction cups to pull the front glass off. It was a good task to assign my son, although we nearly broke the internal cable connecting the motherboard to the LCD panel.

Also bought a replacement power+data cable as the strain relief had failed a long while ago, leading me to use the passthrough Thunderbolt 2 port to connect to the monitor. I could probably have gone without this expense.

It would be great if someone manufactured a replacement cable that incorporated USB-C + Power + Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3. There are a lot of these monitors out there. Where I work, these legacy monitors are coveted by anyone assigned a normal corporate purchase monitor. A swap in cable replacement would make them practically perfect.

Everything worked although I did manage to snap the screw holding the grounding wire to the external cable, so I had to do a bit of a solder hack. And now, I have my beautiful Thunderbolt Display back on my desk.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Wherein I Represent the Early Internet

I was just watching the documentary about the long ago startup, General Magic, when about halfway through, they show a sequence representing when the Internet entered public awareness. And what do they use to represent the pre-browser era, but the ZModem tool I wrote for Aladdin Systems when I was in grad school.

Ironically, I don't think it was widely used over the Internet, but was generally used for BBS downloads.

Something to proudly show the kids.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Textual Representation of SwiftUI Paths

While on vacation, I've been creating my first Swift Package, for my incomplete Scalar2D project. While my major ambitions have been slow, it does have 2 useful features: it supports many ways to represent colors as strings, and it can generate 2D paths from standard SVG path element strings.

So you can write:
import SwiftUI
import Scalar2D_SwiftUI
import CoreGraphics

public struct TestFrogView : View {
    private let cgPath = CGPath.path(fromSVGPath: "M185 212C139 183 40 199 39 108A18 18 0 1 1 56 75Q67 53 91 45A18 18 0 1 1 127 38C170 29 193 62 220 161L225 110Q231 84 260 115C260 142 265 205 241 198Q215 193 227 230C236 249 161 249 125 248A5 5 325 1 0 122 259C192 264 248 249 237 226Q230 206 247 211  266 210 272 161C273 139 276 106 252 93 245 86 209 65 216 133 200 46 176 19 132 26A28 28 0 0 0 81 40Q61 46 52 63A27 28 0 0 0 27 110C33 192 70 192 145 205Z"
)!

    public var body: some View
    {
       GeometryReader
        {
           proxy in
            Path(self.cgPath.fitting(geometry: proxy)).strokedPath(StrokeStyle(lineWidth:3.0))
        }.frame(idealWidth:cgPath.boundingBoxOfPath.width, idealHeight:cgPath.boundingBoxOfPath.height)
    }
}

Scalar2D_SwiftUI package in action

One thing, I found out after putting the package together was that the SwiftUI path has a String representable form of its own. You can pass it a specially formatted string and it will generate a Path struct.

Thus, an SVG Path to make a heart in a circle:
"M 0 0 A 100 100 0 0 0 0 200 A 100 100 0 0 0 0 0 Z M0 45 C 63-23 171 87 0 200 C -171 87 -63 -23 0 45 Z"
Simple SVG of a Heart in a Circle
Can be represented by a SwiftUI Path representation of:
0 0 m  -55.2285 0 -100 44.7715 -100 100 c -100 155.228 -55.2285 200 -1.83697e-14 200 c  55.2285 200 100 155.228 100 100 c 100 44.7715 55.2285 0 6.12323e-15 0 c h 0 45 m 63 -23 171 87 0 200 c -171 87 -63 -23 0 45 c h 
Which is probably just a direct translation of the underlying CGPath, which does not have an explicit arc element, so the arcs that made up my circle—the "A" operands—got converted to the "c"  cubic Bezier operands. The stringRepresentation property on Path tends to add unneeded short line segments after moves, which is also probably an artifact of iterating through the CGPath to generate the text. 

You could use the included Path(string: String) constructor to generate text from shapes, but SVG paths have the advantage of being generated by common drawing applications, and having more features such as arcs, shortcut operands and relative coordinates. I'm not sure why Apple didn't choose SVG paths when deciding on a text format, but please give my Scalar2D Swift Package a try. 


Monday, March 04, 2019

Optimizing a TV Antenna with an HDHomerun

I get asked by users of my Signal GH iOS app for the HDHomerun network TV tuner what measurement they are supposed to improve as they adjust their TV antenna systems.  

The HDHomerun provides 3 metrics describing the data stream coming from the over the air antenna: 
  1. Signal Strength
  2. Signal to Noise (or Signal Quality)
  3. Symbol Quality
I've been thinking about the analogy of someone with a noisy hearing aid trying to understand someone talking in a noisy room. From this way of thinking, Signal Strength is either turning up the volume or moving closer to the talker. It's how loud the voice is to the listener. The problem with this is, that the signal might be too noisy or maybe you are boosting as much noise as signal, or making it so loud that it's painful. Some gain might be useful, but just ramping up the Signal Strength has its limits. 

In this analogy, Signal Quality is how noisy the voice is when it gets to the listener, if the hearing aid is high quality, or the room is naturally quality, even a fairly quiet talker can be understand. You might try buying a better aid which can add gain without adding additional noise, or move closer to the speaker. 

Finally, Symbol Quality is a measure of did you understand all the words the speaker said. If not, your understanding can be severely distorted. When it comes to digital TV, you either understand everything perfectly or the picture pixelates. So, when it comes to Symbol Quality you want 100% perfection, nothing else will do. This is why I show it as either a green filled circle ⬤ or a red ring  ⭕️ and don't bother to show the Symbol Quality number.

As you can see, I'm prodding you to understand that while some Signal Strength is necessary, and Symbol Quality perfection is mandatory, it is long term Signal Quality that you want to improve. This is why Signal GH graphs Signal Quality over time, and not the other two metrics. If you can get the Signal Quality consistently above, let's say, 80, this will lead to getting perfect Symbol Quality  so your job as an antenna system optimizer is to find out what steps it will take. 

In my case, several years ago, I went through the process of getting bigger and bigger quality UHF only antennas, on taller masts, using a quality UHF pre-amp, and using my Signal GH app to find just the right direction to point the antenna—actually I used more primitive tools in the beginning and it's what led me to develop Signal GH. With each step, signal quality for each of my local stations increased, and each would eventually have such consistently high signal quality that the Symbol Quality would pretty much never dip below 100% perfection. Initially, I pulled in 2-3 stations good enough to watch without pixelation, and now I have 8-9 with dozens of sub channels, including every major. It's a rare—and usually blustery day—when my picture breaks up. I have an advantage in that all the stations I'm interested in are in the same general direction, or are close by, so I didn't have to resort to exotic antenna configurations: just bigger and taller. 

One thing I like about networked TV tuners, like the HDHomerun, or the Tablo, is that since they are shared resources, I don't have to split my signal to every room in the house, instead, I split my antenna signal between an HDHomerun for live TV, and running my app; a Tablo for recording scheduled content; and my main TV for watching major sporting events, i.e. pro football. So, only split three ways. With a 3 way splitter, one of the splits gets twice the signal of the other two, and this output I connect to the Tablo, as it will be recording unattended. Minimizing splits is one way to get better signal quality. 

Another signal improving quality of networked tuners is shorter cable runs, as they can installed right next to the splitter. 


Here's a video I made to elaborate on signal metrics:





By the way, I occasionally hear from other Tablo users who own an HDHomerun solely to run Signal GH. Gratifying but I wish I could support the Tablo, but they don't appear interested in providing the data I would need. 

Friday, December 07, 2018

Changing My Mind and Buying a 2018 MacBook Pro 13"

In my last post I argued that you can get a perfectly useable used 2015 MacBook Pro development machine for half the cost of a moderately specced 2018 model. And, that is true. iOS development is relatively lightweight compared to video production. My work issued me a 2015 MacBook Pro 15" and I don't have any complaints.

But there is a difference between needs and wants.

The fact of the matter is that I've been doing OK financially. Even when I wasn't, I spent about $2400 in both 2004 and 1998 buying the computers with which I plied my trade. By that measure, the nearly $3000 I spent on a quad core, 16GB, 1 TB laptop is at worst par for the course. I can afford it.

And this little laptop is a pleasure. The screen is exceptional, the speakers are amazing, Touch ID is such a convenience. I haven't grown to like or use the Touch Bar, but on the other hand, I don't use tools that require the escape key, and it wasn't as if I could touch type the brightness control before.

It's fast. Having a quad core in this smaller form factor is a treat when it comes to Xcode builds.

Its battery lasts longer than I do.

Being able to charge from either side is surprisingly pleasing. I worry about the lack of MagSafe, but so far no incidents.

And that's mainly what I connect to this device: a single power cable. If it's at my desks this will include Ethernet and whatever connection is needed to drive my monitor. I have a 38" ultra wide display that a Thunderbolt 3 cable can drive at 60Hz. Nice. But mainly, I'm typing untethered on a couch or bed. There is no dongle hell for me as most of the time there is nothing to attach. Well, I do have to have a USB-C to lightning data cable on hand if I am debugging on an iPhone or iPad. I will say that keeping track of the various flavors of USB-C cables is a very non-Apple like experience, but  not a daily thing.

The keyboard is fine, accurate, fast even. Nothing attached to a laptop is going to match my clicky Das Keyboard for visceral enjoyment.  I've no preference between either the 2015 or the 2018 keyboards. (Oh, I see where the Touch Bar is suggesting the keyboard emoji 🎹. Cute.).

The trackpad could be smaller, and occasionally had been giving me false palm taps, but I guess an update fixed it. Regardless, it's the finest trackpad it's ever been my pleasure to use. I see co-workers haunting around the abominable Apple Magic Mouse instead of using the delightfully responsive and accurate trackpad in their MacBooks and I just don't understand.

So, yes. If you can afford it. If you have the cash—please don't go into debt for this luxury—the 2018 MacBook Pro is worth what Apple's charging for it.