My iPhone Home Screen for 2016

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Last year turned out to have quite a lot of changes for my iPhone, thanks in parts to the entry of the 2 major video streaming services into India. That along with some amount of app rationalisation on my part due to the constraints of a 16 GB iPhone led to a bit of diversity on the home screen unlike the last two years.

I was also quite tempted by the iPhone 7 plus and its dual lens camera (not to mention the 128 GB storage tier) as a replacement for my iPhone 5s, but a change of battery a few months back gave it a new lease of life. Plus I got an Apple Watch a few months ago (review coming up hopefully) to replace my Pebble Time (turned out to be just a month before the Pebble sale to Fitbit).

Coming to the apps:

  • No change in the first row, but the second row see some major changes with the Reminders app being relegated to a separate screen. Todoist continues to feature on the second row thanks to its IFTTT & cross platform support, and is now augmented by the Apple Watch app that makes it easy to refer to reminders on the go.
  • Alarmed finally moves off the screen making way for Due that’s a very similar app and has an Apple Watch app. This turned out to be the major reason for the switch. While Alarmed did expose the notification actions on the Apple Watch, there was no way to add reminders or act on dismissed notifications. Due fully support adding reminders through the Apple Watch and also gives access to the timers on the wrist.
  • I got rid of Inbox and consolidated my Gmail account into the Outlook app, mainly due to the space constraints. But, it doesn’t hurt to have the emails and calendars consolidated into one app, and it supports the Apple Watch as well with a full fledged app and complication.
  • Whatsapp also swaps places with Outlook based on my more frequent usage of Whatsapp due to the introduction of voice calls last year.
  • Messages continues to stick around along with Day One though the usage of both has reduced over the year. There was also a new version of Day One launched with web and IFTTT support, but I am sticking to the original version for the time being.
  • While I continue to use One Note as my primary note taking app, I have found the performance of the app to be quite poor on both the iPhone and Mi 4, and finally moved it out of my home screen. The Apple Watch app is also quite handy though it is of limited utility for note taking on the wrist. An honorable mention for the Zoho Notebook app that is cross platform just like One Note and also supports the Apple Watch, but not IFTTT. It also allows you to make audio notes from the wrist.
  • My trio of travel apps – Google Maps, Uber and Ola – remain in the same places and my reliance on each of them remains unchanged as well. That said, the apps themselves have changed quite a bit over the last year with Uber undergoing a major rebranding exercise and a complete overhaul of their iOS app. Ola has also expanded its range of services over the last year.
  • Oura is one of the new entrants to the home screen and it is the companion app to the Oura ring that I got in May 2016. I use it through the day to track my activities, starting off with my sleep first thing in the morning.
  • Streaks continues to remain on the home screen and I have tweaked the activities that I’m tracking to make them more automated where possible like the ones that read data from the Health app for steps, sleep and weight. It again has an Apple Watch to make it easier to track habits.
  • Netflix and Amazon Video don’t need much of an introduction of course and 2016 saw the entry of both the services in India albeit at either end of the year. I even upgraded my data plan so that I could watch shows on the go. Here again, the 16 GB storage of my iPhone 5s prevents me from downloading any shows though both apps support offline videos. Good thing I have my Mi 4, but Netflix for some reason doesn’t allow downloads on itNetflix for some reason doesn’t allow downloads on it.
  • The Money Pro app also finally displaces the MoneyBook app for my finance tracking. The main advantage was the search feature, making it easier to track expenses. The Apple Watch app also helps in making quick entries. It has a macOS app as well along with iCloud sync support.

A few other apps that don’t feature on the home screen but get used regularly are PayTM (was using it long before the demonetisation), Workflow, Pedometer++, Data Counter and Copied (a clipboard manager with a keyboard and widget) some of which I use through widgets or the Watch apps.

Dangal – Parenting for the millennials

The movie is definitely fun and inspiring with wonderful performances from the entire cast. Aamir Khan is very unlike himself as a senior citizen in the movie for sure. It was quite interesting to watch the Disney logo at the start as well and the movie fits in nicely with their image.

There’s quite a bit of a lesson for parenting as well over here, especially for the millennials of my generation. There were some cinematic liberties taken with the overall story, with Geeta’s final match in real life being a practical walkover (1-0, 7-0), and the role of the NSA coach as well as there would’ve been a lack of tension in the movie otherwise. It also turns out that she apparently won a gold for India in the 2009 Commonwealth Wrestling Championships, so her record leading up to the CWG 2010 was not as disheartening as shown.

Babita’s performance was also downplayed in the movie overall as she has a pretty decent record herself. Of course, the person people actually remember from CWG 2010 was not even mentioned, but he made sure that he was making news right after the release of the movie. Either way, it was a stark reminder of the fact that pretty the majority of Indian sports (that are not cricket) victories are in spite of the system and not because of it. This possibly makes the movie more important than Lagaan.

Rogue One

Some quick thoughts on the movie:

  • The Star Wars movie with just one light saber in the whole movie, and more akin to the Westerns and War movies of the yesteryears as many reviewers have noted
  • This poses some interesting questions for the Star Wars Machete order, now that we have a storyline that comes in between Episodes III & IV
  • It also lays to rest the “big” design flaw in the Death Star that allowed its eventual destruction
  • It seems we’re also seeing the beginning of a new era where dead actors will be resurrected for key roles in prequels/sequels
  • The entire climax of the movie gives a new physical dimension to data search and security
  • This story also pretty much disregards the Jedi Knight video game series’ plot which started off with the Dark Forces game and involved Kyle Katarn stealing the Death Star plans

The Oura Ring

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I got the Oura Ring through Kickstarter earlier this year and have been wearing it daily since then. This has been one of the gadgets that has drawn the attention of friends, colleagues and strangers alike. The Oura Ring is primarily a sleep tracker with a variety of sensors to measure your activities and sleep 24×7. It connects to its app your phone through bluetooth for daily insights and analysis. In short, it functions just like the typical wrist worn fitness tracker with a focus on sleep tracking, but in a much smaller form factor which makes it more comfortable to wear all the time.

The ring is definitely a large one, and would not look out of place on Mogambo‘s fingers. That said, it doesn’t feel very heavy or uncomfortable to wear all the time if worn on the correct finger. The wife acceptance factor is also pretty low as I have found out over the last few months (I had to leave it behind during one of our family vacations), but it rarely fails to draw the attention of anyone seeing it for the first time.

The ring is not exactly symmetric and due to this, fits more comfortably on either the index & middle finger of your left hand or the ring & little finger of your right. There are also small protrusions on the inner bottom side of the ring for the heart rate and body temperature sensors, but they are imperceptible when worn.

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I got the glossy black version and it has resisted scratches quite admirably though it can attract fingerprints. The completely waterproof nature of the rings ensures that it gets a regular cleaning every time you wash your hands or take a bath, so hygiene is taken care of unlike some smartwatches with straps that can’t be wet.

The battery life of the ring has also been great, lasting 2-3 nights and worn all day long, depending primarily on how long I sleep. The ring charger is basically the case it came in with a micro-USB port for charging. When the battery reaches around 10-12%, the ring seems to stop recording any information. A full charge takes about an hour in this state.

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There have been quite a few firmware and app updates (about once a month) that have fixed bugs and tweaked how sensitive the ring is to activities. It also integrates with the Health app on iOS and sends the sleep data and resting heart rate every cycle.

The ring is pretty much passive in nature with no display or direct interaction mechanism. It instead uses the phone app to sends notifications like low battery or time to stand up. However, it does detect when it is worn and can accordingly activate its tracking. There are also ways to activate an airplane mode and reset it through the app.

Coming to its actual utility, I have found it to track my sleep quite well, though it is limited to one cycle a day. So, if you take a nap in the afternoon, it won’t show in the app, but it does track the info and seems to pass it on to the iOS Health app. For the sleep tracking, it detects the different phases of sleep – light, deep & REM – along with your resting heart rate and body temperature. It then gives a score to the sleep cycle and your overall readiness depending on a variety of factors, and provides a few suggestions for the day.

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The ring gradually learns your the range of your typical vitals and adapts its analysis accordingly. For example, one night I was coming down with a fever and it was able to detect the elevated body temperature and higher than usual body temperature to give a basic diagnosis the next morning.

I have found the ring to be quite useful to better understand my sleep patterns and the sources of disturbances in the cycle. There are however times when I have not been able to follow through on the suggestions given and at the end of the day a fitness tracker can only provide guidance but not enforcement for healthy habits.

There are also some areas of improvement for the ring – tracking multiple sleep cycles in a day for one and passing on the wealth of information it captures to the Health app for another. The latter area is especially one where the ring seems to be capturing a lot of data points, but not exposing them directly to the end user.

The Oura ring has turned out to be one of my most interesting backed projects on Kickstarter and it definitely is a precursor of things to come in the wearables and IoT space beyond today’s wrist worn devices. A hat tip to the Four short links post that led me to Oura.

Reviewing a trio of Blaupunkt products

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I recently got a trio of products from Blaupunkt which comprised of a car charger, a lightning cable for iDevices and a wired earphone. I got to use the cable during a couple of my recent outstation trips, and the car charger during a trip to Bangalore. I’ve also been using the earphone pretty regularly with my iPhone and Mi 4 for the last few weeks. Here are some thoughts on each of the products.

Lightning cable

I got a white cable with subtle Blaupunkt branding that’s about a metre long and it worked flawlessly with my iPhone and iPad. One thing to note is that the plastic portion on the lightning connector is thicker than the regular Apple cable and thus may pose some difficulties to people with snug cases. That said the quality of the cable seems to be more robust and should hold up better than the Apple ones. The milky white colour is unlikely to hold up with prolonged use though.

Car charger

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The car charger was also designed pretty interestingly and promised 3 in 1 features by providing a seat belt cutter and glass breaker as part of the device. In terms of the core feature, it has 2 USB ports that are set at an angle and can thus pose a bit of a problem if your car port is placed in an enclosure like in the photo, thus rendering one of the ports unusable.

They do have another model where the 2 USB ports are placed at the rear, so you may want to check the location of your car port before deciding which model to get. As for the charging itself, there were no issues and it charged my iPhone 5s pretty quickly using the cable reviewed earlier.

Earphones

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The earphones have been my most used of the 3 products and I’ve been using them regularly when viewing Netflix and Amazon Video on my iPhone and Mi 4. The cable is flat in nature which lessens the chance of it getting tangled when stored and there is a mic with a play/pause button. There is also a separate volume slider at the Y junction that works independent of the device volume, but ensuring that it works on both Android and iDevices (or any other device for that matter). It was supplied with 3 different sized eartip pairs to enable better fitting for your ears. There is also a white colour available.

As for the sound output, it has decent bass and mid range, but the top end is definitely lacking. This makes it quite good for voice calls and also video watching, but not necessarily for music. I compared it to the staple Apple earpods and my 4 year old Soundmagic E30 (around 3x the price of the Blaupunkt set, but without a mic) while listening to some of my favourite tracks. The Blaupunkt model easily best the earpods which is not a difficult feat, but falls well short of the Soundmagic model which has a different level of clarity thanks to the better treble output.

Overall, the earphone should be a decent buy if you are going to use it for voice calls or video viewing and the flat cable and universal volume control adds to the value. However, if you primarily want to listen to music, there are better options in this price range.

Amazon Primes for a 2 front war

Finally got a mail notification for the launch of the Amazon Prime Video service in India that’s bundled with the Amazon Prime subscription. As if the price (Rs 999 per year for now which includes a bunch of benefits for the ecommerce side vs Rs 500+ per month for Netflix) was not lucrative enough, they’ve beaten the Netflix catalogue on many fronts.

Not only are there a bunch of recent movie releases on the Amazon platform but also a bunch of popular TV series including Indian ones. The Amazon Video app also supports offline videos, a feature that was recently added to Netflix and remains a bit spotty regarding support for Android phone models (doesn’t work on my Mi 4). Amazon also offers a bunch of regional Indian language subtitles and audio tracks for some of the movies. It is quite clear how much of a difference Amazon’s Indian presence in the Indian market for the last few years have made.

Amazon also has more bandwidth friendly streaming options giving you more bang for your data pack bucks as well. The lowest quality setting on Amazon uses about 90 MB per hour of video vs around 250 MB for Netflix. Those with a Windows 8 or 10 machine like me are out of luck on the app front with Amazon though there’s always the browser. This is one area that Netflix has an advantage.

There is some overlap of the catalogue between both the platforms. Of course, there are quite a few Netflix originals that will not be on Amazon and vice versa. Netflix is also a bit better organised on its UI with different seasons of a TV series getting clubbed together when browsing the catalogue.

Then, there’s the matter of the situation that Amazon’s other competitors like Flipkart and Snapdeal find themselves in now that the Prime membership has multiplied in value. 2016 started with the Netflix entry and ended with an even bigger bang thanks to Amazon Prime video.

 

The march towards a cashless society

It has not even been a week since the big demonetisation announcement and people and institutions are still coming to terms with the impact. IMO, it should be a net positive for the country and accelerate the move towards a cashless society. In the past week, I managed to get my dentist to get started with Paytm and also pay for my haircut using the same mode. Nonetheless, going around with just Rs 60 in valid paper currency with no usable ATMs in sight doesn’t give one much confidence.

Controversies and short term cash crunches aside, I am really looking forward to the cashless future. I did a quick analysis of my expense modes for this year and around 83% of my transactions are cashless. I expect this will cross 90% pretty soon. Some of the outlets that were cash only like the local grocery stores and saloons have already started providing cashless options after the developments last week.

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3D touch and dual cameras for e-commerce

If you are an ecommerce company, then Apple’s path over the last year or so should be making you eager with anticipation. Unlike other technology companies, Apple rarely lays out their vision for their products in advance. Instead they prefer to launch and refine the underlying hardware technologies before launching the actual product or service. Metal and Apple Pay are but couple of the recent items on this checklist.

Last year’s 3D touch promises to evolve into a form where an online customer will be able to actually touch and feel what you are selling online. This will eliminate one more reason for customers to visit physical stores and get a feel of the items they’re buying.

This year’s dual camera system will in parallel will surely drive the effort towards enhancing computer vision. MTailor, which uses your phone camera to take measurements for shirts is but one of the baby steps towards this, and it has been in market for a couple of years already.

I’m sure Amazon is also aware of this, and they’d be among the first to commoditize these technologies on their Fire tablets and play a key role overall once the technology hits mainstream. They definitely missed a big opportunity with the Fire phone that had some interesting sensors, but not the vision (or maybe execution) to use them to the fullest.

Of course it is not just Apple working on the technologies involved, but given their vertical integration and focus, they are easily the only company that has the clout to push the market towards the standardization of the technologies involved (not necessarily interoperability with other platforms though). Google, Facebook and Microsoft (and Valve/Steam) have quite a lot of stuff going on in the AR/VR space, but given their limited influence on the hardware side of things, adoption will be slower than they’d like.

E-Commerce is but the tip of the iceberg of all that’s possible once computer vision and AR take off. Here’s to the next decade of new developments.

Where Apple is aiming the puck

There weren’t too many surprises on the hardware front with the iPhone 7 release with the usual stream of supply chain leaks and rumours over the last few weeks leading up to the launch. The event pretty much reemphasized that the smartphone market, particularly the high end, has pretty much matured and Apple checked off the niggles over the entry level storage. Apple also broke a trend of sorts with the external design not changing considerably over the previous “s” year, another sign of a maturing market.

There was also a lot of clarity in their positioning of the Apple Watch with the focus shifting to health and fitness, while reducing the emphasis on communication (at least for the time being). It is going to be a while before the Apple Watch is able to turn into a standalone device. The new models in tandem with WatchOS 3 do address some of the performance concerns with the first model, but we’re still some time away from an always on display.

Apple also doubled down on their strengths with the focus on platform exclusives, 3D Touch and pushing the envelope on the camera capabilities. They have also increased the feature gap between the regular and Plus model this year with the camera having a tangible difference in addition to the screen and battery size, along with the increased RAM.

There was of course the loss of the headphone jack that many had predicted and the switch to a non clickable home button. The former is something that many of the Android phone makers have tried to preempt, while the latter is something a majority of the non-iPhone owners are used to. As for the A10 chip, it was a validation of ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture that has been in use by the Android market for over 3 years. Big jumps in performance usually come through node shrinks, and with Moore’s law slowing Apple has its task cut out.

Here are a few thoughts on where things seem to be headed based on Apple’s moves this year:

  • They have pretty much set their sights on the pro camera market with the support for wider colour gamuts on the sensor and display. Plus (pun intended) there’s the dual camera lens bringing back a viable telephoto lens to the smartphone market (sort of – 56mm is closer to normal focal length). People who were hurt with Windows Phone and Nokia’s (Lumia 1020) demise have a proper alternative at last.
  • It’ll be a while before the longer focal length on the iPhone attains the quality of the wider one, but this is just the beginning and we can expect iterations to happen pretty quick now that the ball has been set rolling by the most focussed company. Also, you don’t have to look any farther than this comparison of the original iPhone camera to the iPhone 7 to see what can be done in 10 years.
  • Again, on the photography front, with the Plus introducing a second lens, we get closer to the “holy trinity” of prime lenses which typically refers to a wide-normal-telephoto combination of lenses to cover a majority of shooting options. Technically we’ve got the wide and normal lengths covered. Of course, the iPhone is not going to be replacing DSLRs for specialised purposes (birding, low light action) anytime soon, but you know where we’re headed.
  • This dual lens camera also enables the journey towards computer vision thanks to the depth of field perception. What is today a sort of gimmicky feature previously tried by Android phone makers can potentially be the stepping stone towards AR.
  • Those Intel fab rumours that have been around for the last couple of years might finally be coming true next year.
  • The currently gimmicky, but increasingly exhibited feature of 3D Touch is most likely a stepping stone to a future where the display lets you actually feel the textures of items shown. This would take interaction to the new level and iOS 10 has finally opened up the current haptic engine to developers. Just take a look at Apple’s patents to get a feel (yes) of where things are headed. Maybe it’ll arrive as soon as next year when people expect the 10th anniversary iPhone to have an all display front. Accessibility has been one of Apple’s strengths and they also support Braille displays with their iOS devices. This expertise might just help them overall bringing out the really 3D in the touch. As to what kind of stuff is possible, check out Disney Research (guess which companies share board members?).

So, where does this leave me personally? Well, I just replaced my iPhone 5s battery and it should last me another year quite easily given that the performance has all but improved with iOS 10 (I doubt anyone with a 3 year old Android phone can say the same thing). The iPhone 7 Plus camera is really tempting me to give up my DSLR entirely (I really love shooting with my Canon 50mm f/1.8 prime lens which on a cropped body like the 550D gives an 80mm equivalent focal length), it’s just the first iteration and I find the 5.5″ size too big. Apple Pay has also not launched in India either, so I’m not missing any major feature with the 5s barring the screen size and camera (I do use a Mi 4 as well, so the screen size is even less of an issue). Then there’s the next year’s iPhone of course.

Changing an iPhone 5s battery for Rs 600

My 2+ year old iPhone 5s battery had been behaving quite erratically in the last few months and it used to switch off with the battery levels in the 40s. I finally bit the bullet and decided to replace the battery last week on my own after lots of contemplation on whether to go to an Apple authorised service centre or one of the local Heera Panna like outlets. I did a bit of reading and online tutorial watching which made the whole process seem quite simple and decided to go ahead on my own.

Amazon turned out to be quite useful for the DIY crowd with the battery and toolkit available at throwaway prices (Rs 450 & Rs 140 each). The items arrived pretty quickly as well and I started off with the video open for reference.

What the video fails to convey is the really miniscule size of the screws and the fact that each screw is of a slightly different size. Nonetheless, I managed to take things apart.

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Taking things apart

Yes, those tiny specks you see in the pink bowl are screws, and they are of slightly different heights, so if you are planning a similar endeavour, lay them out in the right sequence with the protection cover to make life easier when putting things back.

Removing the battery was another ball game altogether. I ended up following the method shown in the embedded video and prising the battery off. This is not as easy as it looks in the video as the tape holding it to the body is quite strong. I ended up pretty much deforming the battery when taking it out.

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The old deformed battery next to the new one

Some online tutorials do recommend taking out the tape before removing the battery, which is probably a better option. But you would need to have some tape handy to hold the new battery in place.

Either way, putting things back was even tougher (did I mention the tiny screws?), but I managed to get things done and the phone switched on. Touch ID was the major casualty though the sound from the loudspeakers was also not working at first. I opened up the phone once again as per suggestions online for Touch ID, but to no avail. The loudspeaker fortunately started working after plugging in a headphone and removing it as suggested in this thread.

A week on, the new battery seems to be holding up pretty decently though it’s still not enough to get me through a whole day without a mid-day top up. Still, it’s a lot more reliable than a phone that switches off at 45% charge. Life without Touch ID is also liveable given that there’s no Apple Pay in India or on the 5s.