Bookniture: First impressions

Bookniture was one of the more interesting non-electronic Kickstarter projects that I’ve ever backed. The concept is pretty simple but innovative – a small piece of furniture made of special paper that can be folded away like a book.

Innovation
Innovation

I finally received the piece today and it is a very interesting item as expected. In terms of weight, it is about as heavy as a MacBook Air or your typical Ultrabook, and the piece feels really sturdy once setup. You just open and close it like a book and there’s a felt top to give you a flat surface on top. It supposedly supports a ton of weight too, so you can sit on it without any worries.

As an origami enthusiast, it is quite nice to see something as innovative as this. There are a few kinks to the piece though. First is that the folds do not open out uniformly, and this is to be expected given the modus operandi. Still, it does give a sort of non-symmetric look. Secondly, the felt top could have used a bit of a smoother finish for the edges.

That said, both are minor complaints and the whole piece feels quite nice to open and use. In fact, I’m typing this out with my laptop perched on top of my Bookniture at this very moment. Check out the gallery below for images and if you want to get one for yourself, just head over to their site.

Reality catches up with Uber – Mumbai taxi fares re-revisited

Uber Mumbai has just announced a big hike on the Black and SUV services, pretty much bringing them on par with the Ola Prime SUV service. So here’s the latest fare chart (older versions here – v1, v2):

Approx. taxi fares in Mumbai as on 13 July 2015
Approx. taxi fares in Mumbai as on 13 July 2015

Note on the calculation methodology:

  • Travel time calculated assuming 3 min per km (Uber, Ola, TFS)
  • Waiting time taken as 1/2 min per km (kaali peeli & Meru\TabCab)

Activity tracking with Misfit and Pebble Time: OneHandedReview

It’s been over 2 weeks since I got my Pebble Time, and one of the main things I wanted to try with it was the activity tracking functionality. I’ve been using the Misfit app for this purpose for the last 2 weeks. I prefer to wear watches on my left hand as most right handed people do, but having my left arm in a sling has forced me to wear the device on my right hand. This has given me some interesting perspective on the way the app and device work.

Step counting

Brushing teeth can be really vigorous
Brushing teeth can be really vigorous

Wrist worn activity trackers do have some limitations particularly when it comes to step counting accuracy as elaborated in The Wirecutter fitness tracker recommendation, and my experience has been no different. I found that I was hitting the goal of 600 points (approx 6000 steps) just sitting at home with my arm in a sling, all thanks to the app failing to reject mundane activities like brushing teeth from the count. Granted that I was wearing the device on my dominant hand, but the iPhone 5s is a much better step counter in this regard. The whole purpose of using a wrist worn device rather than a smartphone for step counting is to cover those times when you don’t have your phone with you, but the accuracy in this case leaves a lot to be desired.

Sleep tracking

This is one area where the Misfit app seems to do quite well, particularly since the detection is automatic and you don’t have to worry about forgetting to switch to the sleep mode. Since the Pebble Time does not have any sensor to detect whether it is worn, there were times when I removed the Pebble from my wrist and the app thought that I was sleeping. These false activities can of course be deleted from the Misfit app on the phone. There were also times when I got up for a while and then decided to sleep in and the app handled these activities quite gracefully.

I also did a mini experiment over the last couple of days by wearing the Pebble on my left hand which is bound in the sling at bedtime, and found that the awake periods came down significantly over my previous recordings using my right hand. I wonder whether it will make a difference if I put the Pebble in the pillow cover which should be a similar scenario as my sling bound arm.

Conclusion

The Misfit app for the Pebble is pretty decent overall and particularly good for sleep tracking. The battery life is also pretty decent at 3-4 days, when compared to dedicated fitness trackers and miles ahead of other smartwatches. However, if step counting is your primary objective or you want to use it with Android (only the iOS version of the Misfit app supports the Pebble), then look elsewhere. That said, I have found the app pretty useful though I plan to try out some of the other activity tracking apps for the Pebble like Jawbone, FitCat and Morpheuz.

Apple Music in India: First impressions

I updated my iPhone 5s and iPad mini to iOS 8.4 this week, and with it came the much anticipated Apple Music. I promptly signed up for the free trial, and have been trying it for the last couple of days. The service seems quite promising, but the Indian catalogue seems to be quite limited at the moment. The iTunes store has a ton of Indian music ranging from Bollywood tracks of different eras to regional ones. However, most of the tracks seem to be missing from the streaming service.

The interesting aspect is that if you try searching for a particular track that’s not currently available for streaming, you are presented with results of the artist likely indicating that it’ll show up eventually. The new Music app on iOS is also a big overhaul and relegates your music collection to the last tab. I’m already a subscriber of iTunes Match and was able to see my uploaded and matched tracks listed there and also in the search results when applicable. In fact artist pages in the Music app also show tracks from your library in a separate tab when available.

The Music app also seems to be a bit unstable at the moment and it has crashed on me quite a few times already while streaming music. There were also times when tracks were listed in the album or search results, but when you try adding them to the Now Playing list, they disappear. Looks like it’ll take some time for the service to stabilise in India.

The only other streaming service that I’ve used at length was Mix Radio thanks to the complimentary subscription that had come with my Lumia 720. That definitely had a very extensive catalogue and I’d augmented my music collection considerably during that 6 month period. I’m sure the other Indian streaming services like gaana, Saavn, Wink etc. have an equally extensive collection. However, Apple is taking on these services head on with their Rs 120/month pricing that’s a fifth of what they’re charging in US. This is of course consistent with their pricing for iTunes Match and the tracks on the iTunes Store. Apps are the only area where there’s price parity between regions it seems.

Either way, it is a good option for the consumer. The value of iTunes Match priced at Rs 1200 per year in India has become a bit questionable though, as the price difference with Apple Music subscription is just Rs 240 per year. I’m yet to check out the difference between the iCloud music library and iTunes Match. If equivalent, then it’ll be pretty clear as to which service to go with for me.

Revisiting the taxi fares in Mumbai

Ola announced a series of price cuts to their Mini and Sedan services to better compete with Uber and also added the Taxi for Sure hatchbacks to their app in the last few days. This calls for an update to the fare chart that I had made for the various taxi services in Mumbai ranging from the traditional kaali peeli and Meru\Tab cab to the new entrants like Ola and Uber. So here it is:

Taxi fares in Mumbai
Taxi fares in Mumbai

The equation hasn’t changed drastically, but the Ola Mini service is now pretty much comparable to UberX, while UberGo remains unchallenged. Ola Sedan also becomes significantly cheaper than the Merus and Tab Cabs while the newly added Taxi for Sure service (for the Ola app) slots in between these two. TFS seems ripe for a round of price revisions as the  cars are effectively equivalent of the Minis, i.e., hatchbacks.

The recommendations are quite simple:

  • For short distances (<10 km), kaali peelis are the most economical
  • Beyond 10 km, UberGo reigns supreme. In fact, unless you are doing very short distances (sub 5 km), they are the best option. They’re definitely not sustainable for Uber and that possibly explains their relatively limited availability. However, for taxi commuters like me they’re the perfect kaali peeli replacement.
  • Since you are unlikely to get an UberGo, your next best bet is to settle for an UberX or an Ola Mini. For that matter you could go with any of the other options barring the SUVs or Uber Black for distances around 10-15 km without too much fare difference.
  • For distances longer than 15 km, the newer lot comprising of UberX and Ola Mini & Sedan pull away from the Rs 20/km crowd of Meru, Mega, Tab Cab etc.

Either way, this is a good time for the commuter though the rates are unlikely to be sustainable in the long run. So, enjoy for the time being and hope that the day of pleading with taxi drivers and autos never returns.

Getting rid of those pesky MTNL Ads

In the NDTV app on Android
In the NDTV app on Android

That’s the article view that greeted me when I tried to read one of the news articles on the Android NDTV app. MTNL has been doing this for the last few weeks in Mumbai, and I’d noticed it earlier while browsing sites on my iPad, laptop and phones as well. I finally gave up and decided to block the IP serving these ads – 203.94.227.140 – at the router level itself so that I wouldn’t be bothered on any device.

In fact this doesn’t seem to be the first time MTNL has done this given Yogesh’s similar post from over a year ago which also contains instructions to block the ads in greater detail (maybe first time in Mumbai though). If you want detailed instructions, check out his post, and use the IP- 203.94.227.140, as his IP seems to be for MTNL Delhi. It is also possible that they start using other servers, so if you come across any MTNL ad, right click and check out the source server IP, and then add it to your router blocklist. In my case, I found the IP this way, and then enabled the firewall on my TP Link router and added a rule to block this IP (use add WAN host to add the IP).

TP Link router firewall
TP Link router firewall

If you check out the user posts on the MTNL Mumbai facebook page, you’ll find similar complains from other customers as well. Airtel drew its share of flak sometime ago for similar behaviour, but the MTNL shenanigans have gone almost unnoticed with hardly any mainstream coverage.

This is a very poor way to treat customers and it really gets in the way on mobile devices. Of course, this kind of injection only works on non secure sites only, so HTTPS sites like Google, facebook etc should be problem free. Here’s to hoping that MTNL stops being user hostile.

Pebble Time: In hand and First impressions

I was one of the late backers of the Pebble Time smartwatch, and finally received it today. I backed it after the Apple watch event in early March and deciding that the first gen Apple watch was a bit too expensive for me. I also got lucky with the Pebble Kickstarter campaign and managed to switch my initial pledge of $169 to the early bird $159 when people had started backing out towards the end of the campaign.

The shipment was delayed by nearly a month, but that’s not too bad by Kickstarter standards, and as I had opted for the expedited option with prepaid duties and taxes, I received my package within a week of dispatch. I did have to stay in regular touch with the DHL support, first for the KYC documents and then for the description letter to the customs team. There was also the currency goofup on the invoice with labels in EUR though the payments had been in USD. This was something many of the Indian backers who received their packages before me had observed on the campaign portal. Fortunately for me, the DHL team seems to have managed to sort out these issues with the customs to ensure that I received the package just a day later than their estimate.

Anyway, coming to the Pebble Time, it is definitely quite lightweight and pretty comfortable to wear. The silicone strap seems quite comfortable as well and the material feels just like those silicone cupcake moulds and other similar kitchen accessories that one sees in stores. As for the display, it is fairly colourful, but a bit dim even with the backlight as many reviewers and users have observed. It is especially problematic in the current monsoon season with cloudy skies most of the time. That said, I’m sure app and watchface developers will start optimizing their products for the display in the coming months to improve readability. The double bezel is also on the thicker side by modern gadget standards, but haven’t found it to be very distracting so far. As for the coating on the steel frame, I suspect Pebble might be facing the same durability challenges as Apple did with the iPhone 5 black version, given the scratch reports from early users.

I opted to pair the Pebble Time with my iPhone 5s instead of the Mi 4, and loaded a bunch of apps and watchfaces on it including the PebbUp watchfaces that I’d backed on Kickstarter. The notifications have been trickling in since the pairing as well and the vibration is fairly gentle. I’d already done some notification management on my iPhone, so haven’t been getting flooded thus far, and even cricket scores are showing up thanks to the ESPNCricinfo app alerts.

I also did a full charge of the Pebble while installing the apps though it was well over 60% when I got it. It charged up pretty quick even from a laptop USB port. Also, no faulty cable.

Some of the other things I’d like to test in the coming weeks are Android support and voice replies, fitness tracking (already installed some apps), usage at work (currently working from home with a broken arm) and of course the battery life. In the meantime, checkout the unboxing and initial setup photos below.

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Taking photos of X-ray slides at home

Well, I broke my left arm last week and as expected got some X-rays done. Hospitals and clinics have their well lit setups for viewing the X-ray slides. Ideally you would want to take photos from these setups, but it may not always be possible to do so. In such cases there are a few options for you to snap the slide at home:

  1. Use a flashlight app on an iPad\tablet to get a full white screen set at full brightness and use this to light up the slide. I used this technique for my slide pictured above. You may not get full coverage, but it is good enough if you know which section of the slide you need to click.
  2. The next option is to use a laptop screen with a white wallpaper or a blank text editor to get a white background. You will need to hold the slide in place with this technique, but it should give you greater coverage.
  3. The last option would be to use the largest screen at home, i.e., the TV. It may not be easy to get a fully white screen on the TV unless you can connect your tablet\smartphone\laptop to it and mirror the white background, but this is probably the only screen large enough to cover the slide completely.

So, there you go a few simple ways to light up that slide.

How Uber’s shaken up the pricing structure in India

I’ve been using Uber quite frequently over the last couple of months and today’s Mumbai taxi strike to protest such services ironically forced me to opt for Uber at a 1.8x surge price. While I’ve had my share of ups & downs with Uber, the flexible pricing model has been one aspect that I’ve been impressed with compared to the competition like Ola.

Uber managed to create quite a buzz offering single digit per km rates which was almost half the rate others were offering at that time, but the pricing model which included a per minute charge on the trip ensured that the overall fare was not unsustainably low. This has also allowed them to go after the local taxi & auto services in the different cities and they also end up being cheaper for medium to long distances.

The Uber pricing in India is typically a low per km rate coupled with another per trip minute rate on top of a fixed base fare, with the overall fare subject to a minimum amount and of course the surge factor. Putting it simply:

Fare = Surge factor x (Distance x Rate per km + Trip time in minutes x Rate per minute)

Ola which had started off in India with a conventional pricing model of rate per km and a waiting time rate has pretty much overhauled their pricing to mimic the Uber model. They have in fact abandoned their initial method of applying a fixed peak time price during 2 slots on weekdays in favour of a surge factor. The other taxi services like Meru, Tab Cab, Easy Cab etc. have thus far stuck to the traditional model, though they’re trying to stay relevant through special offers.

I also did a simplistic analysis of how the different services compare in terms of the trip fare in a city like Mumbai (Google Sheet here). I’ve assumed a trip time of 3 minutes per km and waiting time of 1 minute for every 4 km, so the results are going to be quite different in heavy traffic.

Approx fare comparison
Approx fare comparison (corrected)

For short distances, the local kaali peelis are of course the cheapest, but for distances above 10 km, UberGO ends up being a better deal. The next cheapest is the Ola mini which starts getting pretty competitive with kaali peelis after the 20 km mark. This is of course disregarding the non-AC nature of the kaali peelis. [Update] Ola Mini and UberX are pretty competitive till the 10 km range, but separate pretty quickly after that as the near 30% higher charge per km for Ola starts making a mark.

The older generation of Meru, Tab Cab etc manage to remain competitive with the newer lot, matching the next best Ola Sedan UberX and Ola up to the 10 km mark, but the higher cost per km quickly multiplies beyond that point. And then we have UberBLACK and UberSUV which have the same rates but different capacities. They can actually offer a better deal than Meru and the likes for long distances over 25 km. Of course if you have 5-6 people travelling, then these 6 seaters are the way to go. Lastly, we have Ola’s version of the SUV with its Prime service that’s the costliest of the lot. Again, if you are in a group of 5-6 people, this can actually be cheaper than the taking two 4-seater vehicles, unless of course you manage to get a couple of UberGOs.

I haven’t considered the surge pricing in the above comparison, and that is a scenario where the older lot turns out to be cheaper. However, such scenarios are rare as Merus and the likes can be pretty hard to find for immediate travel. The interesting thing to see now will be the role that regulators play in toying around with these pricing models.

Update (16 Jun 2015): Found a major miscalculation in the trip time. I have corrected the graph and updated the text accordingly.