Woz Says, “Just say No”

According to reports from Fortune, Woz hates the idea of an iPhone without a headphone jack…

headphone jack

Get ready… it’s coming, yet again. Can you hear it? It’s getting closer!

Change! Change is coming!!

I remember back before the Lighting connector was introduced with Apple’s iPhone 5. The entire world lost its mind every time Apple would make changes to its proprietary 30 pin connector; and it happened often enough between the release of the 3rd generation iPod in 2003 and the release of the Lightning connector nearly four (4) years ago in September of 2012 that the wounds are still fresh. Changes to the connector meant charging cables, cradles and other accessories wouldn’t work with the newer devices, requiring you to not only shoulder the expense for the new device, but for all new speaker, sync and charging accessories as well.

It made owning an iPod risky; and it made buying a new one all that more expensive.

Since the introduction of the Lightning port with the iPhone 5 in 2012, Apple’s connector hasn’t changed. Lightning cables are still Lightning cables, and they’re still somewhat expensive; but the cable still does everything that its 30-pin predecessor does and more.

This year, Apple isn’t targeting its sync connector for change. Its targeting something that’s a bit more fundamental – the 3.5mm headphone jack.

Over the past six to eight months, there have been consistent rumors regarding Apple removing the 3.5mm headphone jack from their flagship iPhone and in its place, putting an additional stereo speaker. Audio would be pumped through either the device’s stereo speakers, the audio channel in the Lighting port or through Bluetooth.

The proposed change has proven to be very controversial. The jack dates back to 1878 (yes..! as in the 19th century!). Back then the jack was 1/4 ” (6.35mm) long and used by telephone operators to connect calls from one circuit to another. Later, the jack was shrunk to 3.5mm. It’s gone through a few different revisions for both improved mono and later stereo sound. However, except for those small changes, the technology has gone largely unmodified during its 138 years (yeah… nearly 150 YEARS) of active, wide spread use.

The issue here is that EVERY set of (wired) headphones in use today from Apple’s Ear Pods and the junky jell-based earbuds you find at Wal-Mart to the top of the line Beats Headset and Bose over the ear headphones make use of the 3.5mm headphone jack; AND it’s considered by many to be the preferred method of connecting to a music player.

Case in point – according to an article published in Fortune, even Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniack prefers to use the headphone jack in his iPhone to listen to music over a Bluetooth connection.

The problem..? Bluetooth Audio sucks… and Woz is painfully familiar with it, as is just about everybody else that makes use of any kind of wireless audio connection. The dynamic range is suboptimal and the audio can often sound muddy. According to the Fortune article,

Still, that’s not enough for Woz. In his interview, the Apple co-founder said that transmitting audio over Bluetooth isn’t good enough for those, like him, who want better fidelity.

“I would not use Bluetooth … I don’t like wireless,” he said. “I have cars where you can plug in the music, or go through Bluetooth, and Bluetooth just sounds so flat for the same music.”

Pulling out the headphone jack in the iPhone 7 will likely affect every iPhone user. Many audiophiles don’t use wireless headsets yet because fidelity just isn’t there yet. The mid-range is too strong, the bass can often become muddy when its adjusted “too” high, and the high end is often flat, though experiences often greatly differ from headset to headset, external speaker, to external speaker.

Sound quality from Bluetooth-based accessories greatly improved over the last few years. There has also been a great influx of wireless audio accessories on store shelves. Apple doesn’t sell an Apple-branded set of wireless headphones. Instead, the company offers Bluetooth-based headphones through its Beats brand, which it acquired in 2014 for $3 billion USD. In fact, Beats sells several wireless earbuds and headphones that work well with an iPhone without a headphone jack.

While many who exercise (run, walk or some other solitary workout) often do so to music, they often find that the wired cord of their headsets often get in the way. Exercising and fitness have become one of the hottest catered activities and Apple is aligning both the iPhone and the Apple Watch to address this popular trend. That’s why they appear to be interested in removing the headphone jack.

The iPhone 7 is currently anticipated to be announced early next month, sometime during the first full week of September 2016. Unfortunately, Apple is one of the most secretive companies in the world, and it is unclear if the next iPhone will arrive during an anticipated, late September delivery date with or without the 138 year old headphone jack.

Will you be in the market for a new iPhone this year? Does the prospect of Apple removing the 3.5mm headphone jack appeal to you or do you feel this is a mistake? Does Bluetooth audio work well for you? Do you own a set of wireless headphones that you’re happy with, or do you use them in wired mode, instead?

I’d love to hear from you on this. Why don’t you meet me in the Discussion area, below and tell me what you think?

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Unboxing the Star Trek Original Series Communicator

If you’re a Star Trek fan, then you’re going to want to see this…

About a year ago, I got wind of a new prop replica and after seeing it, I had to have one. I’m a huge Trekkie, and honestly, this was just a little too difficult to resist. The closest I ever got to a Star Trek Communicator when I was a kid was one of these…

Communicator Walkie Talkie

The walkie talkies I got as a kid, weren’t very authentic. They were blue. They were made of plastic, and they didn’t work very well. However, for a ten-year-old in 1975, they were totally awesome.

As you can see from the unboxing video and from the photos below, this is TOTALLY different. The device is truly authentic. It’s got the right type of metal casing, with the correct die cast pattern on the casing. It has the gold tone grill antenna, flashing jewels and actuator buttons.

The device is a fully functional, Bluetooth handset. When paired with your smartphone, it can make and place calls, and even act as a Bluetooth audio speaker for your favorite music or video.

The battery life on this thing is (supposed to be) pretty decent. I’ve had it for a few weeks at this point, and after its initial charge, it hasn’t run out of power just yet. Though to be very honest, I haven’t used it too extensively. It’s been hugely fun to play with, but I don’t want to damage or ruin it…

You can see a number of still pictures of the device and its contents, below. As you can see from the shots, is correctly sized and proportioned, and the sounds, make it all that much more fun that you’d think.

IMG_5535 IMG_5536 IMG_5537 IMG_5538
The front of the box The back of the box. Notice all of the detailed specs and information The Communicator’s collector’s box The faux leather case
IMG_5539 IMG_5540 IMG_5541
The open Communicator’s Collector case The contents of the collector’s case. The open Communicator Kirk to Enterprise..!

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Olio Keeps Trying

You have to hand it to a company that keeps on trying…

Over the past year, I’ve done a lot with wearables. Again, here’s all the links to the articles I’ve written on them.

Microsoft Band

Fitbit Surge

Pebble Time

Apple Watch Sport

Olio Model One

Waterproof-Watch-5

This list is in sharp contrast to the state of the wearable’s market now. It’s not as prolific, and its currently stagnating a bit, as everyone – and every device – that’s still in the market tries to decide where the next step is.

Case in point – the Olio Model One. It looks awesome; but at the time of review, if you tried to use it past a 2-4 hour window, you’d be out of luck. The battery life was atrocious. It was effectively, unusable due to the battery burning through a charge, especially if it was out of range of your phone.

However, Olio hasn’t given up on the Model One; and despite me being bitterly disappointed and down on it out of the gate, I continue to be hopeful as new software updates come out for it.

Another case in point – Olio has recently released Model One Software Version 1.4; and boy..! What a difference a release (or two) makes!

Olio has included the following in this update:
Gesture – You can now select ‘High’ for a sensitive gesture response, ‘Medium’ for the current default that you’ve been experiencing with gesture on, or ‘Low’ for a less sensitive gesture response and optimum battery life. The gesture feature is located in Settings on your Model One.
Bluetooth – This update also includes improvements to Bluetooth connectivity,
Overall UI Improvements,
Battery Life optimizations for iPhone users

I’ve noticed the following with this update:

1. Battery Life – Battery life is improved by 3x. I can now make it through the day – 12-14 hours without having my watch run out of power. The device is now (in the most basic terms) usable. I can use it without having to recharge or worry about if and when (not it… WHEN) my watch will run out of power.

I still have to make certain that I take my phone with me to meetings. Bluetooth will still go haywire, trying to reconnect to my phone if I’m out of range…

This still needs to improve. The Model One can’t be considered a success here until it can go at LEAST 24-36 hours without needing a charge. Heck, the Microsoft Band version 1 (Part 1 Part 2) can do that.
2. Bluetooth – Yes, it connects quicker. Yes, it seems to find my phone better; but when it loses connectivity, it still searches like mad.

What needs to happen here is that if the phone goes out of range or the watch “loses” the phone, the watch needs to check your schedule. If you have an appointment during the time of communication loss, then the watch shouldn’t try to reconnect until after the appointment ends. Then it should try three times on its own, and then give up. The watch face should turn red (or give some other visual clue that its lost connectivity and has stopped trying on its own to connect) and then give the user the opportunity to reconnect manually. Olio Assist can house the settings.
3. Gesture Sensitivity – High is too high, low is too low, and medium… can be a weird combination of the two at times. Unfortunately, for me, medium is NOT “just right.”

Stay tuned. Olio promises many more updates and improvements to the Model One in the coming months. I’ll have an update on those that make an impact posted to Soft 32 as soon as I can.

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Olio – Did the Cat Finally Build a Smarter Mouse Trap?

Contestant number five has entered the ring…

olio

One of the bigger things to hit the market this year is wearables. Things like Microsoft Band (part two of the review can be seen here), the Fitbit Surge, the Apple Watch (review pending arrival of the hardware), Pebble Time and Time Steel are all wearables – specifically smartwatches – that will have been released or will be released later this year. As of the first of this month (yes, April 1st; but no, this isn’t a joke), a new player has thrown their hat into the ring – meet the Olio Model One.

The device…? Oh my stars and garters, yes! Have you seen this thing?!

The Model One is beautiful. It’s made of stainless steel and basically comes in two flavors – (brushed?) Stainless Steel and Black. And while it is DEFINITELY drool-worthy, it’s got a few hurdles to get past.

The device itself runs on a proprietary OS

According to Olio, people spend WAY too much time in their computers, in their smartphones and tablets and shortly, in their smartwatches… that are tethered and tied to their smartphones. Olio wants their users to think of the Model One as an extension of themselves and not something that drives them or makes them live in it. As such, there’s no app store to bury you in apps. You get what you’re given (at least initially).

While the device obtains connectivity via both Android and iOS wireless devices, there aren’t any apps for you to run on the watch other than the ones that come with the device. While it does have an “assistant” of sorts, called Olio Assist, providing time saving suggestions, the limited – but value-added – functionality of (just) what comes out of the box, is where Olio sees the Model One hitting the sweet spot. You don’t get lost or waste hours of time playing Flappy Bird (or one of its many device based, or online clones). Instead, you focus on the information you need and only the information you need, so you spend time instead to your family, friends and loved ones.

However, most of the world wants apps. Its why we buy smart devices, and without an app store or a market (more on that, below), you have to wonder what the draw will be? Yeah it looks GREAT; and people at Tech Crunch, The Verge, and Gizmodo, all think saving you from “notification hell” is the bomb; and maybe it is.

Maybe it is….

I know that it drove me a bit nuts with the Microsoft Band, and it didn’t work right on the Surge; but when things are configurable, as they are on Band (and are supposed to be on the Surge), then you have to think a bit more about the purchase. For example, there aren’t any apps or even an app store for Band, either… (and its $400 cheaper).

And by the way, there’s no fitness band functionality here that I can see. This is a smartwatch and not a smartwatch that also measures physical activity. It doesn’t have any activity sensors, a GPS, a accelerometer, or a gyroscope. The functionality appears limited at this time.

It’s Expensive
Yeah… let’s talk about that for a sec.

While Microsoft Band is clearly affordable at $199.99, the Olio Model One is $345 – $395 for the Steel flavor and $495 – $545 for the Black flavor as of this writing with the $250 “friends and family” discount that’s being extended to the public. Normally, we’re talking $595 – $645 for Steel and $745 – $795 for Black (which puts their metal link bracelets at around $50 bucks over their leather bands).

The Olio Model One runs in the same neighborhood as the Apple Watch and Apple Watch Sport. The pricing models may be very different, but their close enough to be similar. You can clearly get a decent and high end analog watch for about as much AND get the band you want, too.

The device has a stainless steel case and an ion exchange glass touch screen that is supposed to survive impacts and resist scratches. It has wireless charging with a battery that can last a full two days with full functionality and then an additional two days, if you turn off connectivity to its Bluetooth-LE radio. The Model One can communicate with both Siri and Google Now via Olio Assist; and can control third party smart devices like thermostats and lights. It’s also water resistant so you don’t have to worry about ruining it when you take a swim.

The Model One is clearly a premium product; and maybe all of this is worth the premium price to you. I’m skeptical at best, at least until I have it in my hands.

It’s got an Initial Production Run of Just 1000
The Model One is a limited edition device.

Other companies release things in “limited edition,” and then they really aren’t limited at all. Olio’s first run of the Model One is limited to 1000 units – Five hundred of each the Steel and Black flavors. According to Olio,

“We decided to do a very limited production for its first release because the company is committed to the quality and craftsmanship and wanted to make sure that every piece holds up the high standards of the company. Olio compares themselves to a craft brewery, and aren’t trying to be everything to everyone.”

Olio likens itself to a craft beer brewery. Brian Ruben from ReadWrite.com said it best, I think. “if I buy a six-pack of a craft brew and I don’t like what I drink, I’m not out $600. Plus, I don’t have to call tech support.”

While the limited run and the high price are, I think, partial marketing tools to help create hype (as well as tech coverage by a number of different outlets, including yours truly and Soft32, at the end of the day you have to wonder how viable a company with such a limited production run with such a high end product will be. Olio appears to be artificially creating a limited supply in order to make the device’s value appear higher. Things that are rare ARE considered more valuable.

Diamonds, like the Hope Diamond, with such a highly desired cut, level of clarity and precision cut ARE rare and ARE very valuable. Olio hopes that watch aficionados see the Model One in the same light and don’t ding it for its digital guts as they do with nearly every other smartwatch; and with nothing really to compare it to (the Apple Watch isn’t even available for pre-order as of this writing, and hasn’t hit the market with either a splash or a thud…), it’s hard to see how well or how poorly the Olio Model One will do.

Have you seen the Olio Model One? Does it interest you? Will you buy one? Stay tuned to Soft32 as 2015 truly does appear to be the Year of Wearables. I’ll have more coverage on devices as they are released or as they make news.

In the meantime, if you have any questions, please let me know in the comments and discussion area, below.

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FEATURE REVIEW – Fitbit Surge

The next item up for review in our smartwatch round-up is the Fitbit Surge. Let’s take a look…

Untitled

Introduction

My quest to stop being a fat slob continues.

What to do, how much of it to do and what else I need to do to keep myself healthy is a never ending battle… and its not easy. There are way too many different daily challenges that present themselves.  Am I moving enough?  Am I eating right?  Am I sleeping right? These questions are difficult to answer as it is, and Fitbit has been trying to help people answer it for more than a few years now.

Their latest foray into fitness band/ smartwatch arena is the Fitbit Surge. It has a few nice things to offer not only the fitness conscious, but the smartwatch curious as well; and in this article, we’ll be taking a look at its suitability in both arenas.

This is the second review in a series – or round up – of smartwatch reviews that I’m doing.  The first on the Microsoft Band was large and in depth enough for me to break it up into two parts. You can see them here and here.  Its good and certainly worthy of more than a casual look.

My review of the Fitbit Surge is likely going to be just as lengthy and just as in depth. I’m going to pick apart the hardware. I’m going to pick apart the software. Smartwatches aren’t cheap. The Microsoft Band is $199… IF you can find one to buy.  I’ll cover the cost of the Fitbit a bit later, but I will say that it isn’t cheap, either.

Is the Fitbit Surge the right smartwatch and fitness band for you? Let’s stop dawdling and get down to it!

Hardware

Like the Microsoft Band, the Fitbit Surge is a single piece of hardware.  It has a wide, silicone/ rubber band with a traditional, aluminum alloy buckle.  Its much easier to wear than the Microsoft Band, as there’s a great deal of give and flexibility in the Fitbit’s rubber band.  Aside from the same kind of issues that you might find in wearing any other sports watch, band or bracelet made of silicone or rubber – where you sweat a great deal and your skin may become irritated due to a lack of exposure to air – the Fitbit wears the way you would expect a sports watch to wear.  Honestly, I was very pleased with the way it felt while it was on. The only comfort issues I had were related to breathabiltity.

Wearability and Usability

I’ve been wearing the Fitbit Surge for quite some time now – well over six weeks.  The device is easy to wear and its very comfortable.  However, there are a few things about it that I am not too crazy about.  Part of that is esthetics, part of that is design and while the device is comfortable to wear, it does have Wearability issues.

 The first thing that I noticed about it is that its BIG, even the small sized Surge is big.  The device comes in 3 sizes, small, large and extra-large.  However, size doesn’t relate to device size, it relates to band length and the size wrists it fits. The device itself is 1.34″ wide (34mm) and the screen is 0.82″ x 0.96″ (21mm x 24mm).

 Here are the sizing requirements, direct from Fitbit:

    • Small fits wrists that are 5.5″ x 6.3″ (13.94cm x 16.00cm) in diameter.
    • Large fits wrists that are 6.3″ x 7.8″ (16.00cm x 19.81cm) in diameter.
  • X-Large fits wrists that are 7.8″ x 8.9″ (19.81cm x 220.61cm) in diameter.X-Large is available as an online only purchase.

There are a couple of gotchas here that you need to be aware of.  While they aren’t mission critical, they are important to be aware of so that you can deal with the issues they present.

  1. The wrist band is made of silicone or rubber
    Wearing a silicone band in and of itself isn’t bad, unless you’re allergic to the rubber.  Even if you aren’t allergic to it, you need to make certain you spend some time with the band off.  Silicone can often cause rashes and other skin irritation, and its important that you spend at least some inactive time during the day with the band off, especially if you start to notice any dry, red or flakey skin, or if you start to have some other sort of skin reaction to prolonged wear of the device.
  2. The device, though flexible is bulky
    While the band in and of itself is flexible, the actual Surge itself, is stiff and bulky. The Surge is much more comfortable to wear than the Microsoft Band but the actual electronics of the device go out a bit farther than you might think.  Its clear that Fitbit have created a device that’s very compact, but if you look at it from the side and feel around the ends of band near the actual device FOR the device, you’ll see that its actually a lot bigger than just the screen.

The device itself is, well… ugly.

I hate to say it, but it is.  It’s a lot bulkier than it first appears or seems and its one piece construction means that you don’t have any kind of style choices with it.  Other Fitbit devices like the Apple Watch and even the Fitbit Flex have interchangeable bands. The Surge is a single piece unit, and… right now… you can have ANY color you want… as long as its black.  It’s the only color currently available.  The Surge is supposed to be available in blue and tangerine, but as of this writing, both are currently – still – unavailable. I’ve had my Surge for about two months or so. It was announced at CES and black was the only color available then.  You would think by now – or at least, I did – that the other two colors – which, quite honestly, aren’t all that attractive either – would be available by now.

However, don’t expect to be able to change bands. Unlike the Apple Watch or even the Fitbit Flex, this is an all in one unit, and you’d better be happy with the color choice(s) you make. Once you buy the device, its yours to keep; and there’s no way to change colors or change bands. What you buy is all that you get.

Notifications

If the Microsoft Band got notifications right, the Fitbit Surge doesn’t even come close.  On the Band, it was very easy to overdo notifications, as you could choose to have ALL of your notifications from your phone come over to Band, or you could choose specific ones that it does and keep the vibrations down to a dull roar.

With the Fitbit Surge, its exactly the opposite. You have just a single on-off setting for notifications on the device and then you get only notification of incoming text messages or incoming phone calls.

That’s it.

That can be good or bad, depending on what you’re looking for Surge to do.  If all you’re looking for is basic notifications from incoming messaging, you may be in luck.  As I said, the only notifications that the Fitbit Surge picks up are text messages and incoming phone calls.  If you’re looking to get notifications from upcoming appointments, Facebook Messenger or some other app on your phone, you’re out of luck.

The other big problem I have with notifications on the Fitbit Surge, is that the device doesn’t seem to understand or know when I don’t want them, or want them to stop.  I had notifications turned on for a while on the Fitbit, but have recently turned them off, as I didn’t need BOTH it AND the Microsoft Band buzzing my wrists every time my iPhone received a message, a phone call, or some other event occurred.

So, as I said, I turned notifications off on both bands.  Interestingly enough, Notifications on the Surge are still occasionally received, even though they are clearly turned off on the watch. I have no idea why. This is clearly a huge bug, as there shouldn’t be any notifications coming over at all.

However it clearly shows that the device’s software is capturing the notification and broadcasting the data. It clearly shows that the watch is receiving it through the Bluetooth partnership created on the device, even though its not supposed to be collecting ANY data at all. I’m seeing issues on both ends of the pairing; and its problematic at best. The fix for this – and it definitely needs to be addressed – will likely involve both a software update on your smartphone as well as a firmware update to the device.

UPDATE – The more that I wear the Fitbit Surge, the more I continue to have issues and problems with Notifications coming to it when they are clearly turned off on the device.  While the device does not alert that any text messages have come it, they are clearly coming across and they should not.

Period.

This is an issue that needs to be resolved immediately.

Battery Life

Battery life on the Fitbit Surge is actually pretty good. Compared to the Micrsoft Band, though, nearly ANYTHING would have better battery life… Well, not everything… the Apple Watch won’t last longer than 18 hours. The Micrsoft Band lasts 36 to 48 hours (even if you have Bluetooth turned off and sync via the USB cable).

The Fitbit Surge on the other hand, will last the better part of a week, even with all of the stuff that it does and all of the activities it tracks. Since the Surge tracks nearly everything you do, including sleep, the best thing to do when you do have to charge it is to charge it when you know you’re going to be inactive, or when you can’t wear it.  Swimming and showering come to mind as good candidate times when you might want to charge your Surge.  While the device is DEFINITELY water resistant, I wouldn’t hold it under water for long periods of time. Its not a perfect world, and my luck would have it getting water damage.

The biggest problem that I’ve found with the Surge is that it doesn’t give you a lot of warning when the battery is low, and you might find yourself out and about when you DO get a low battery warning. I’ve actually had mine die on me a time or two because I didn’t get an early enough warning that the battery was level was low.

Connectivity

The Fitbit Surge uses Bluetooth 4.0 to connect to your smartphone. I’ve found that while there are there are issues with this on other devices, the Surge specifically doesn’t use Bluetooth LE. I’m not certain if that’s why there are less connectivity issues with it as opposed to the Pebble Steel and Microsoft Band that I currently own.  Perhaps it is, and points to some larger issues with BT-LE devices.

What I can say about the Fitbit Surge is that while its connection to my iPhone 6 is much more stable, it isn’t as reactive or responsive as other devices are.  When implemented correctly, BT-LE devices tend to see their paired counterparts better and will actively connect when in range (though there’s even issues with this, as you can see in my article), as opposed to devices that do not pair with a BT-LE profile.

While I have less connectivity issues with my Surge, and while the battery life is decent even with its Bluetooth radio on all the time, I have found that data doesn’t come across the pairing unless the application is open and active. This means that I need to be actively using the app for the sync to work and pull data over.  Leaving it run in the background doesn’t do much… at least not consistently. I see this more as a Bluetooth issue rather than an issue with the Surge.

When you pair your Fitbit Surge with your smartphone, you’re going to see two connection partnerships – one for the Surge and one for Surge (Classic). The connection for the Surge is the one that you’d expect to see, and the one that is responsible for all of the connectivity and communication between the device and your smartphone.  If you want to use your Surge to control music playback, you need to enable Bluetooth Classic in the Settings app on the watch. After your Surge and your smartphone are paired, you can use it to control music playback.

To do so, open up a music app on your smartphone.  Then, double tap the home (left side) button on the Surge.  This will bring up the music control app on its display.  You will see your Surge attempting to connect via the (Classic) pairing, and then the current song’s meta data should appear on the watch face’s display.  You can pause the current song’s playback or skip to the next track. Unfortunately, not all music apps broadcast track information, which means that when using apps that don’t do that, the song title won’t appear on your Surge. However, you can still pause or skip to the next track.

I can see where this might be a great tool for someone who is exercising to NOT have to pull out their phone to control their playlist. Depending on where you have your phone stashed (not everyone fancies or trusts an armband case…), you may have to break your stride or stop exercising all together to retrieve and return your phone to its original place of storage.

However, I’ve tried this, and while its easier than pulling a phone from a shirt or pants pocket while running or walking, it isn’t totally a walk in the park, either. You’re going to need to get used to the interface and controls. You can pause, play, and skip songs. You’re going to have to pull your phone out if you’ want to repeat or replay any tracks or if you want to change playlists, midflight.

If you wear glasses for reading, you may have issues reading the audio file’s metadata, provided that your music app of choice transmits that information, on the Surge’s screen. While this isn’t a deal breaker, you do need to be aware of its limitations. Its hard to handle all of the varied functionality with only three buttons; AND to do it while you’re moving, too.

UPDATE – While writing this review of the Fitbit Surge, I’ve had it synching to my iPhone. Over the past few weeks, I’ve started to notice a few issues with Bluetooth connectivity between them both. They always seemed to work and play well together.

Right now, they are not; and NOTHING has changed on either end to warrant the issue in their pairing.  They just seem to not be looking at each other right now unless I absolutely tell them to get together. This is problematic at best, as when I started my Fitbit Surge journey, getting these two together was the easiest paring I’ve ever seen.  It just worked… straight out of the box.  Now, its like they love each other, but their not “in” love.

 Really..?

This is yet another reason why I think that while Bluetooth offers a LOT of potential, it has REAL issues as a data communications and transmission technology and conduit.

Software and Interfaces

I’ll get into Fitbit’s smartphone software in a minute, but I have to say something here, that’s bothered me since I started wearing the Surge – The information that it tracks and collects isn’t stored in Apple Health. Its stored in Fitbit’s proprietary program.  The app doesn’t share or swap data with Apple Health, and it really seems like it should. Some of what it does can’t be done in Apple Health, and that’s fine, but there really should be a way to have data from your iPhone and the data from you’re the Surge work and play well together, especially where Fitbit falls short.

Next Page

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My Bluetooth has Cavities

Sometimes, I really wonder why I use so many Bluetooth devices…

bluetoothApple has just released iOS 8.3 Beta 1 to its developer partners. The big push behind iOS 8.3? – Wireless CarPlay connectivity. This is a change to CarPlay, which previously required a cabled, lightning connection to a head unit to function.

CarPlay and iOS 8.3 are obviously going to rely more heavily on Bluetooth Low Energy connections going forward. For me – and I think, a number of actual and potential CarPlay users – this is likely going to prove to be a huge headache.

I’ve got a Pebble Steel, Microsoft Band and a Fitbit Surge. These three smartwatches and activity bands all use BT-LE to communicate with my smartphone – currently an iPhone 6 running iOS 8.1.3. I’ve been experiencing some very serious challenges with Bluetooth connectivity over the last number of years and I’ve come to a very clear and solid conclusion:

Bluetooth just plain sucks.

I’ve had more dropped connections, failed connections, and difficulty pairing devices than I think ANYONE should have to put up with. The technology is supposed to be active seeking, meaning than its supposed to actively find paired devices and when it does find them, activate secured communications between devices that are paired and hold and maintain that connection as long as the two devices are in range.

The problem that I run into, with my:

  • iPhone 6
  • Pebble Steel
  • Microsoft Band
  • Fitbit Surge
  • Kenwood BT952HD Car Stereo
  • Beats Wireless Headset
  • MacBook Pro
  • Apple Magic Mouse
  • iPad 1

and any other wireless device that I’m forgetting to list is that none of them…

NONE

OF

THEM

can maintain any kind of consistent level of Bluetooth connectivity between any of the devices that they’re paired to on a consistent basis. Devices always fail to sync at some point. Active connections are dropped (like, I’m on a phone call in the car and the call I’m actively on drops off the car stereo, but the call itself is still connected to my iPhone; and this happens WHILE I’m driving) without any kind of warning or indication of communications problem.

Paired devices often refuse to connect, requiring Bluetooth radios in either one, the other, or both devices to be turned off for 15-30 seconds and then cycled back on before formerly paired devices may connect. In some severe cases, partnerships have had to be deleted and devices repaired, because no amount of trying, begging, pleading, bargaining or cajoling has gotten them to connect (and then even repairing the devices can be difficult…)

Mercedes-Benz at the Geneva International Auto Show 2014

This is why I was so very interested in CarPlay in my vehicle. It REQUIRED a cabled connection, meaning that I wouldn’t have to argue with the head unit and my iPhone and their potentially fickle relationship any more. The devices would connect when the phone was plugged into the cable, and that would be the end of that. As long as CarPlay continues to support hard wired connections, then I think it will be a good solution for hands free operation in a vehicle. The moment that it moves to wireless communications only, is the day that I think the standard will begin to have some serious problems.

What’s even more infuriating is that they stop and start working seemingly at random and completely on their own. I have no idea at times whether or not the devices I assume are connected are in fact… CONNECTED.

But can someone please help me understand what I’m supposed to do here??

Can someone point me to some sort of “wireless crazy glue” that will insure that Bluetooth connections work as their intended all the time? I know I can’t be the only person having this kind of problem. I’ve learned over time that I can’t just assume that paired devices will connect when they’re supposed to and/ or will stay connected as they’re supposed to when the devices come in range. At best, this is a hit and miss sorta deal, and honestly, Bluetooth needs to be better than this.

When I rely on Bluetooth connections to connected and stay connected after pairing (as long as the devices are in range), this sort of hit and miss crap just can’t be tolerated. I can’t get any of the Continuity features between my Macs and my iPhone to work consistently. I can’t get any of my smartwatches or activity/ fitness bands to consistently sync with my smartphone. I can’t get my smartphone and my car radio to connect and work the way it’s supposed to.

How the heck am I supposed to rely on any of this stuff to work and “improve” my life if the connectivity technology – Bluetooth is full of “cavities?”

I have NO idea what to do…

Are you having issues with Bluetooth or Bluetooth LE? Do your devices drop connections like paparazzi drop names (and flash bulbs)? Do your mission critical Bluetooth applications – your car radio, your fitness band or smartwatch, your wireless headset, etc. – crap out on you when you need them most? Am I missing something that I should be doing, but for some reason am not? What words of wisdom can YOU offer ME? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the whole issue. Why don’t you meet me in the discussion area below and give me your thoughts on the whole ordeal? Lord knows… I could use the help!

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IOS 8 Beta 3 – A Train Wreck of a Different Color

I’d like to say things are getting better.   I really would…

Those that know me know that I’m a long time mobile device maven. I’ve got years of experience in mobile computing, telecommunications and mobile broadband as well as mobile app testing. If it runs on a handheld device of just about any size and OS (or laptop, too), I feel confident that I can give you a solid set of test results after playing with it for a while.

While extended testing is always the best way to go, I’ve also learned to trust my instincts.   As a product reviewer, extended testing helps you identify issues, trends and perhaps issue root causes. This is the best way for someone like me, in a beta testing role to test, as the results you get from this activity are more focused, more accurate and very reliable.   Quick looks as what was released are great for press hounds and getting article views, but don’t always provide the best details on the ins-and-outs of encountered issues.

screen-shot-2014-07-07-at-9-58-00-am

IOS 8 Beta 3 was released to the Apple Developer Community on 2014-07-07.   This one was just a few days longer than I initially anticipated, as I had heard that Beta 3 would be made available on or around 2014-07-03.   Honestly, it could have come sooner for me. iOS 8 Beta 2 was nearly unusable. I have no idea how someone would be able to test any of their app mods or new apps on it.   I had a hard time getting many apps to run with any level of consistency.

So I’ve spent a bit of time with iOS 8 Beta 3, and here are my first impressions. It’s still a train wreck; and not ready for even developers to really use to create apps with yet.   Testing existing apps for compatibility will also be very difficult.  I say this as an experienced software QA professional.   In not so technical terms – train wreck is a kindness.

Here are the issues as I see them at this point. I may update this column with additional information, or expound upon it in an additional column as things become clearer over the next couple of weeks (Apple’s traditional time period between beta updates).

Please note that when installing any new beta release, I never, EVER restore a backup. I always set the new release up as a new iPhone. It’s more work to do this, but insures that all settings and plist files on the device are created from scratch, without any legacy issues or problems from previous builds being brought over.

App Crashes and Other Issues

·    Facebook – often force quits when initially started.   Doesn’t update as expected.   Newsfeed contains items that are totally fresh (minutes old) next to items that are completely stale (10-18+ hours/ days old).
·    Gmail – mail items don’t update as expected. App force quits or freezes unexpectedly during updates
·    Mail – Stability is greatly improved, but comes at the expense of occasional app force quits.  The app also freezes unexpectedly during an update; but at least I can delete 4-5 messages at a time without the app crashing or force quitting on me.
·    Pebble App – No consistent BT LE connectivity (see the Bluetooth section, below)
·    Angry Birds Friends – The app won’t connect to Facebook and therefore, you can’t play the game with your power-ups or other in-app purchases. The app hasn’t worked right in all 3 iOS 8 Betas.
·    Health – this app is about as intuitive and easy to use as an operations manual for a nuclear power plan is to read and understand. IOS 8 Beta 3 is supposed to incorporate a way to count steps in Health.  I have no idea how to do this, and the app doesn’t yet have any info in it that explains that this requires the iPhone 5s or later (as it has the M7 chip and accelerometer which enables this).  It’s also NOT communicating with any other apps as of yet that I can see. I can’t get it and Run Keeper or Nike’s Fuel Band app to show up as sources.
·    Phone – the actual call screen and the phone app seem somewhat disconnected or discombobulated.   The app often doesn’t show the in-call screen or displays a combination/overlay of the two after attempting to end a call.   Dialing from Favorites is a problem. I’ve had occasions where the device has frozen without connecting a call when trying to dial from a saved Favorite, yet the devices top speaker seems engaged as you can hear dead air from it at that point (but the call likely will NOT connect).

Adding a Favorite from the Recent Calls list doesn’t always present you with the correct number or options you want for actually adding the Favorite (FaceTime, Voice Call, etc.)  Again, Apple is playing with the core code it uses to communicate with all of its radios in the iPhone.  I would have thought this would have been worked out in Alpha Builds and not in Beta releases…apparently, that’s just me.  However, from what I’m seeing, the app’s behavior suggests that there’s some heavy logging going on in the background, and this may be the cause for its sluggishness, crashes, graphic artifacts, etc… or it could be that the code is still in flux, too. It’s difficult to say…

My confidence level is set to – Low

I’m not happy with the way app compatibility is working out, and I’m certain that many 3rd party developers won’t be either.  With the way things are shaping up, they’re going to have to do some serious reworking of their products to get them to work correctly with iOS 8.  This means that after reworking, testing and getting everything set, they will need to rev the app and have it resubmitted to the Apple App Store.  Given what I am seeing, I think a huge backup of apps needing review will be experienced and Apple will bump into a problem with backlog.

Bluetooth
Front, back – cha, cha, cha.

This particular area seems to have taken one step forward and two steps back. I have had trouble pairing my iPhone 5 with EVERY Bluetooth device I have, including my Kenwood BT CD/R-6P1 car radio, Pebble Steel smartwatch and LG and Beats wireless headphones. I haven’t had an opportunity to try connecting my Nike+ Fuel Band.   The one thing that did connect without a problem is the Tile I have attached to my key ring. It connects without issue and STAYS connected, which flies right in the face of a known issue.   Currently, CoreBluetooth services are totally borked:

The CoreBluetooth State Preservation and Restoration feature does not work. If your application is jetsammed while in the background performing long-term action(s), with CoreBluetooth, those applications will cease and the application will not be restored.

Honestly, I’m really surprised that Bluetooth is working at ALL in iOS 8. As I stated before, they seem to be rewriting the Bluetooth stack from the ground up, and as such, I’d expect problems with Bluetooth connectivity with any and all device types. I don’t care how long this takes to resolve; but in the end, this really needs to be totally rock solid.

My confidence level is set to – Medium

Unless Apple does a much better job at pulling this together (and it still IS a bit early in the beta cycle…) in the next couple beta releases, I think this is an area that will need to see updates AFTER the initial release of iOS 8.0 in order to make things work correctly.   I do want to qualify this a bit though.   Apple can extend the beta period as long as it needs to.   This can still come together. I’m basing my statement on three beta releases.

Settings
This is a huge mess. It’s clear to me that Apple is still working on (tweaking is too delicate of a word…) much of the core code rewrite of the mobile OS, and as such, it’s no surprise that Settings is in a worse state than it was in previous beta releases.  Unfortunately, because Settings now behaves like a child throwing a tantrum (on occasion), using the device in any way has become challenging.  If you can’t set anything up, it’s difficult to use the device at all…

In no particular order, here are items of concern that I’ve noticed about Settings since installing iOS 8 Beta 3.
·    The app often force quits unexpectedly, sending you back to the home screen without notice.
·    PIM (mail, contacts, and calendar) data doesn’t always sync consistently for non-Apple accounts.  Fetch doesn’t fetch data. You may have to change “Fetch” to “Manual” and then run the associated app in order to get data to come down to your device.  I’ve noticed this with Google Accounts/ Google Apps Accounts more than any other.
·    Bluetooth settings are difficult to change.  Discovery works just fine, but actually pairing a new device can be challenging. It took me over 10 times to get my car radio to pair with my iPhone 5 running iOS 8 Beta 3, and that process involved initiating the pair from either the radio OR the iPhone, completely turning off both devices at different times, putting the radios in airplane mode, etc.  I actually thought at one point that I wasn’t going to be able to get the two devices to pair…
·    Settings often force quits when trying to modify Bluetooth settings.  The app crashes here more than in any other area, though it does force quit when trying to work with Wi-Fi settings, too.  Apple is obviously changing the way it communicates with your iPhone’s radios, and as such, Settings is very flakey.  This is problematic when the Bluetooth stack itself is in bad shape.  When the Settings for it often force close the Settings app, you really have to wonder just HOW you’re going to get any testing or other work done in this area.
·    There are issues with Notification Center.  I’ve noticed that Notifications often don’t register (new mail coming in, for example) when they are configured to do so. Running Notification Center itself doesn’t always resolve the issue. Opening Settings—Notifications doesn’t always resolve the issue.  This however, is to be expected, as this is an area that Apple is known to be making some big changes in with iOS 8.

My confidence level is set to – Low

iOS 8 is still in heavy active development. I would have – and actually did – expect things to be much more mature by now than they were in Beta 1 and Beta 2. Apple Beta’s are often very mature releases and seeing things in this state is a bit surprising to me when you look back at 6-7 previous beta releases of Apple’s mobile operating system.  Honestly, I didn’t expect iOS 8 to be the major reworking that its turning out to be. Apple tends to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary and as such, development has historically been a progression and not a tear down and rebuild.  iOS 8 seems to be, and very much has, that kind of feel to it. Apple is rebuilding a lot more of their core services than I thought they would.  This isn’t a bad thing. I am just surprised by these developments.

Some people wouldn’t be surprised given all of the rumors out there for the iWatch.  I’m surprised because we haven’t gotten any official word or anything really substantial from the rumor mill that would suggest that a newer, completely different type of iDevice is going to be presented to the public.

However, if Apple IS going to surprise us with some sort of watch or fitness band with a boat load of new sensors and functionality, then doing this type of tear down and rebuild to allow for new and different kinds and types of communication and device interaction wouldn’t be very surprising.  So, I’m interested and intrigued; but not much more than that because I have nothing substantial to hang that raised eyebrow on.

Conclusion
iOS 8 Beta 3 is an evolutionary beta release. I can see progress in it over Beta 2, but it’s clear that Apple has taken a step or two back in some areas in order to move things forward in the end. Communications – which is the heart of any mobile device OS – is a huge focus for iOS 8; and Apple is doing a lot of work with the iPhone at a grass roots level. If you were hoping to jump on to iOS 8 Beta 3 and have a mostly usable device, you’re not going to be happy yet. A lot of the device is still unusable. Apple is clearly still on the bottom end of the development curve with iOS 8 Beta 3.  There’s clearly a long way ahead of us before we can consider this feature complete and all Apple is doing is refining code and squashing bugs.

Are you looking forward to iOS 8?  What are you most interested in as far as its feature set and capabilities are concerned?  Do you have a specific area of interest that you’d like me to comment on, test or research?  Why don’t you give me your thoughts in the discussion area below, and I’ll do my best to get something written up and posted on it in the coming days before Beta 4 hits, in an expected two week time frame (which would be somewhere around 2014-07-21).

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Hands on with iOS 8 Beta 2

Oy…

I’ve been in software a LONG time. I’ve been in mobile devices and mobile computing even longer… What I’m about to say may draw a great deal of criticism and some harsh debate (and at least a great deal of, “well what did you expect, Chris..?   iOS 8 IS in beta after all…).   But to tell you the truth, I’ve been a registered Apple developer for a while now, (since just before iOS 6 was in Beta) and as a QA Guy, I’m very good at identifying patterns and trends… it’s what I do. So, here goes…

screen-shot-2014-06-17-at-10-03-05-am

While iOS 8 Beta 2 improves some things over Beta 1, Beta 2 seems a worse train wreck than Beta 1.

In other words, the latest development milestone release (beta) is worse than the last.

In past releases of iOS 6 and iOS 7, by the time Beta 2 was released, the OS was usable.   While the official stance is always to put beta software on non-mission critical devices, as a software tester, if I don’t have it on a primary computer or device, I’m not going to give it a real good burn in test.   There’s a difference between working with a device and living in one; and in my opinion, you’re going to find more bugs, buried deeper in the code by living in a device than by simply using it and running test cases.   Don’t get me wrong.   I know that formal structured testing is a MUST.   However, living with a device and using it outside of a structured test can provide more information on the overall performance, look, feel, etc. of a system than can be found in a formal test setting (though, in all honesty, this ad-hoc information is USELESS without the formal feedback provided by structured testing, so you can’t cut corners…)

This is the major reason why I run new iOS betas when they become available.   Yes, yes… I have the beta software itch. I gotta have the new stuff; but I file bug reports as I find issues.   This week, I think I’ll be filing a boat load of them.   I’ve bumped into the following and have a great deal of feedback to provide Apple on iOS 8 Beta 2.   The following issues are listed in no particular order of severity or priority:

  1. Personal Hotspot  – Personal hotspot fails to provide internet service to devices connected to it for over 15 minutes.   Even though the iPhone indicates that a guest device is connected, and the device itself has internet connectivity, the guest won’t have access to the internet through the host after a 15 or so minute period has elapsed.   I’m not certain why yet.   It’s not a matter of the iPhone going to sleep and cutting internet access off. I’ve got my iPhone set to sleep after a few minutes.   I’m good for the first 15 minutes or so, and then internet access just disappears.   This issue needs more exploration. I will report more on it as I find out more.
  2. Bluetooth and Bluetooth LE  – This is the biggest train wreck of them all, I think.   The BT stack is a hot mess, failing to communicate with any number and types of devices.   BT-LE service is nearly unusable at the moment. My iPhone 5 won’t (officially) pair with any LE device I’ve got, no matter how hard I try, though LE notifications can travel across the link at times. My Pebble Steel is little more than a hockey puck on my wrist right now. I have Casio calculator watches that are smarter than my Pebble right now as a result…Bluetooth connectivity, especially BT audio, is spotty at best and doesn’t always work.   There are times when I try to listen to music while at the office, or watch videos after work. Audio comes across the link inconsistently with both audio and video media. Sometimes it doesn’t come at all.   Sometimes, it drops during brief periods of silence in the audio track and may or may not pick back up after the silence ends.   During music playback, this happens in between songs, and can happen during podcast playback when there’s a brief silence among the show hosts.   The only reason I can attribute to this, is that the signal activity in the audio track (of either media type) drops and the BT device and stack on the iPhone are trying to conserve power by cutting off use of the radio and the device when it senses inactivity.   The problem is, it’s WAY too sensitive.ALL of my Bluetooth devices – from different headsets, keyboards, Pebble, etc. – also drop connections on a random basis.   I have not been able to put any kind of a pattern to the losses of connectivity; and it doesn’t seem to be limited to any one kind of device or during or after any specific kind of activity or with any specific media.   Connectivity just drops, and reestablishing it is VERY difficult. Currently, it may require turning either device on or off, tuning the Bluetooth radio on either device on or off, or forgetting devices on either end of the pairing chain, and then repairing. This often has to be repeated, as it doesn’t always work.   Part of this was a problem with BT-LE in iOS 7.x and it seems to be amplified in iOS 8 Betas 1 and 2. Which brings me to the next big issue…
  3. Battery Life  – Oh, it sucks.   Anything processor or radio intensive – like playing a game or long data downloads – really sucks the life out of my iPhone 5’s battery. I wouldn’t make a point of this if it were the same thing in iOS 7; but it’s not. It is clearly more noticeable in iOS 8. When things are (seemingly) working right, the same battery that may last the entire day with moderate game play in iOS  7 may  only last 1/2 that time in iOS 8.   A fix is needed here for certain.
  4. Performance  – The train derails and comes off the tracks, here too.   There are still a number of issues with core apps.   Most, if not all of them – Mail, Calendar, Podcasts, Music, Clock, Siri, Maps, etc. – just plain don’t work right.   Previously working functionality just doesn’t work (deleting messages is still broken, calendar info doesn’t sync or display right, audio doesn’t play correctly, tracks are often skipped and don’t play, even if they are local to the device, Siri is being belligerent and won’t listen, etc…); and the device clearly seems to try to compensate for it.For example, there are performance stutters throughout the ENTIRE system. Any and ALL apps appear to freeze but then release and catch up to where they need to be based on physical or data input.   Scrolling through posts on Facebook or messages in Mail seems to be a big hic-cough right now.   My phone can freeze at any particular moment and may or may not come back, requiring a hard reset (home button-power button until the screen blacks out and the Apple logo appears, then release both buttons) before it will come back; and then it takes about twice as long for that process to complete as it did in iOS 7.x… I’ve also found that my phone will just spontaneously reboot, usually at an inconvenient time. It’s happened three or four times since I installed Beta 2, just the other day.I’ve also had the screen go completely black out of nowhere with only a white spinner appearing on the screen.   This usually happens during navigation (with Apple Maps, but has also happened with Google Maps). The last time it was right near the end of a route (and of course, I didn’t know where the destination was located at, so I nearly missed it…).   The OS, just simply isn’t reliable by any stretch at this time.
  5. Storage and Logging –  I have a 16GB iPhone 5.   I know exactly what it will hold and what it won’t. I know which apps I can plug and chug off the device when something interesting is released, how much music I can have on the device, etc.   With iOS 8, I’m at a total loss.   The device is CLEARLY in debug mode by default at this point, as it seems to be going through a large amount of event logging.Storage on the device gets eaten up very, very quickly. I’ve had Beta 2 installed for less than a week, and I’ve already had to blow it and restore it twice because I’ve strangely run out of storage space.   When this happens, the battery life tanks, the device gets VERY warm and the device becomes very unreliable.

To say that I am disappointed with the overall stability and performance of iOS 8 Beta 2 is an understatement. I was really looking forward to it after working with Beta 1 for about 15 days.   Historically, the reliability of Apple software goes up as the asset moves through its development lifecycle.   Unfortunately, that’s NOT the case here with iOS 8. Beta 2 clearly feels less finished than Beta 1.

At this point, I have no idea what to expect from Beta 3 and beyond. However, I would HOPE that Apple is aware of the issues with Beta 2 and will push to get a replacement for it – i.e. Beta 3 – out sooner rather than later.   While I will be filing these issues as bugs, I would hope that they all end up being duplicates of bugs found by other developers (meaning, they are already aware of the issues…).

I wish I could comment of some of iOS 8’s newer features at this point.   However, I’m loath to do so, not because of any NDA that comes with my developer’s account (Apple changed their NDA so I can speak freely about any and all items in either Yosemite or iOS 8.   I cannot, however, post screen shots…yet); but because I’m having trouble with regression issues and with legacy functionality, let alone the new and shiny stuff.

Suffice it to say that there are issues throughout the ENTIRE system at this point. Apple has a long row to hoe with iOS 8; and if they wish to make a July/ August iPhone announcement and a September/ October release, then they better get their butts in gear and start pumping out the testable code. With what I’m seeing, it could be quite a long time before iOS 8 is ready for GM or RTM status.   With iPhone 6 highly anticipated to ship with iOS 8 AND with new screen sized and form factors, this is gearing up to be one of – if not the MOST – highly anticipated iPhone releases yet. It could likely surpass that of the original iPhone or the iPhone 3G as well.

What questions do you have about iOS 8?   Is there anything in particular that you’re curious about?   I’d love to have your input and questions on the new iDevice mobile OS.   Do you find it compelling?   Are you an existing or potentially new iDevice user?   Are you someone who left the iPhone behind and went with either an Android device or Windows Phone when iOS 7 was released?   Does the look and feel of iOS 8 interest you?   Are you interested in switching back to iPhone with iPhone 6 when it’s released later this year?   Why don’t you meet with me in the discussion area below, and ask a question or two?   If possible, I will answer your question(s) and/ or address them in a separate column as soon as possible.

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