Just the ramblings of a Scottish ICT Co-ordinator

Month: March 2022

New Kitchen Under Cupboard Lighting

Nanoleaf Essentials Strip Lights going underneath and around a kitchen cupboard

Recently, both flourescent lights that I had installed in the kitchen broke even though I had recently replaced the bulbs. Because of this I decided to go for a more high-tech solution to the shadowy countertops in my kitchen and purchased a Nanoleaf Essentials Lightstrip Starter Kit from Amazon, which turned up today. This particular lightstrip has a control panel that allows you to control the colour and brightness, but it can also be connected using Bluetooth, or if you have an Apple HomePod Mini on your home network, you can use Thread to connect it to your Apple Home Router. What Thread does is to turn any smart device into an access point, which can make connection easier. Luckily I was able to take advantage of this new technology, even if I only have the one Thread-enabled smart device at the moment.

I decided to set up the lightstrip while it was still coiled up to test out it’s capabilities. Setting up the Nanoleaf Essential strip was easy enough, though the Add Accessory screen on the iPhone was not as intuitive as I’d have liked as I had to go to More Options before I saw that the the Nanoleaf’s NFC-enabled control box had been picked up. Once set up, I was able to test out what the strip could do. Immediately I was blown away by the brightness of the strip, and just how much light it actually generated. That said, the Nanoleaf Essentials Lightstrip is one of the brightest RGB Strips on the market at the time of writing. This strip can do extremely bright shades of white. It can do both the standard cool/warm temperatures one would expect from LED lights, but it can also do different shades of white with colour biases. Unlike with my bulbs from VOCOLinc and LIFX, I have found that pastels can be a wee bit more difficult to achieve. I believe this is due it appearing to have seperate LEDs for white and colour. If you’re cycling through colours, it can turn the white LEDs on and off as you go through them, which can can cause stark changes in brightness. Also it does concern me that one can’t purchase additional two meter strips from Nanoleaf, only 1 metre ones. If I needed for example to relocate the strip, due to the sticky backing I would not be able to relocate the current strip and would need to purchase a whole new kit, despite my having a perfectly functional easy access controller..

Those concerns aside, so far I really like the Nanoleaf Essentials Striplight Starter Kit. It’s bright, produces some beautiful colours, and works well with Apple Homekit.

I’d like to do a wee blog post on my thoughts on the effects of RGB lighting on my mood, but one thing I will say here is that this lightstrip will allow me to both have enough light to safely cook a meal, and to enjoy some chill ambient lighting if I fancy a wee fly cup (sneaky wee cup of tea) in the wee hours.

Being Accessible with Apple

Apple HomePod Mini sat on a desk with the top lit up

I have been using Apple tech on and off since I bought my first piece of Apple hardware, a green iPod Nano 3rd Generation in early 2008. One thing that always struck me about Apple, having used a friend’s 2007 MacBook briefly in 2007 before purchasing my own in 2008 was how accessible they made their devices, from the iPod shuffle that could read out the names of tracks, to iOS, which over the years has developed a whole raft of accessibility options so that as many people as possible can use the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad, to the Mac lineup, all of which come with assitive technology out of (ever shrinking) box. This technology was great in that it could allow people to access the their devices. What happens however if you want to access something bigger. What if you want to access …. life?

Since the introduction of Siri on the iPhone 4S back in 2011 (one of which I owned and loved, despite scoffing at it when it came out. That’ll show me!) Apple, along with Amazon, Google and even Microsoft, have been trying to turn a simple digital assistant into something that can run facilitate in any aspect of your life. Now as dystopian as that may sound, certain “skills” (as Amazon might call them) that you can install to a digital assistant can genuinely make life easier for people with disabilities.

Over the past couple of years I have installed a plethora of smart devices in my home inclusing a few smart plugs from Meross, some smart bulbs from LIFX and VOCOLinc as well as a heat diffuser. I bought an Apple Homepod Mini at the beginning of this year to use as a Homehub. Apple Home made these devices very easy to set up as they are Apple HomeKit compatible, and can be often set up with nothing more than the quick scan of a QR code (which admittedly is an inaccessible way of doing things if you have limited vision). What has resulted is that I have a home that is easier to use, with the ability to turn off those hard to reach plugs instead of just leaving them on (which is very important given current energy prices).

I fiund this useful for people with limited vision as they might not always be able to tell if plus (and even lights) are switched off. While the Apple HomePod has fewer “skills” than an Amazon Echo, the ones it does have can be useful. I’ve found the Intercom feature to be very useful for communicating with people when I’m not home, even for a simple “That’s me away back, please can you put the kettle on?”

Last year, Apple launched the AirTag­­™. This wee device can be placed in, or clipped on to any valuable item and as such can be pinged by any Siri-enabled devices which will cause the AirTag™ to play a sound which you can then locate. If you have an iPhone 11 or higher, you can be directed to the missing AirTagged device by the U1 chip in the iPhone which will vibrate to let you know how far away you are from the AirTagged item.

Like I said in my last blog post (I promise I’m not being paid by Apple or any of their affiliates, honest!) I can’t even begin to tell you just what an absolutely fantastic invention the Apple AirTag™ is. Being visually impaired and on the Autistic spectrum can make it so that I’ll absent-mindedly put things down (yes, even important items) and promptly lose them. Now with a quick enquiry to Siri on my iPhone I can be reunited with any lost AirTagged items and hopefully avoid any unpleasant and unnecessary meltdowns.

Going back to the iPhone, a flick down from the top right of the Home screen on my iPhone 11 presents me with, among other things, a magnifying glass feature. Not so long ago you’d have to spend hundreds of pounds on a handheld video magnifier with the visual acuity needed to magnify text, or even more if you wanted a full-sized CCTV camera system. Now though, Apple have you covered thanks to the iPhone. Supplement that with the Seeing AI app from Microsoft, and your iPhone can even tell you about your surroundings, read documents and even tell you what colour an item is (though every blonde haired person I’ve tried it on has been unceremoniously told that they have brown, grey or even green hair).

Speaking of colours, the smart bulbs I have installed in my home are very easy to set up and use through HomeKit, though their respective apps will give you more flexibility. I’d like to give the LIFX app commendation for not only being accessible with VoiceOver, but also for observing the text size in iOS. This is an excellent app to access if you are visually impaired. While LIFX has made their app accessible, I must confess that I prefer the behaviour of the VOCOLinc Bulbs. This is a shame because I have found the VOCOLinc app to be quite inaccessible, using small font sizes even if iOS’s text size is turned up, and not having support for VoiceOver. I hope this is something that VOCOLinc will implement in their app.

Anyhoo, I have been able to make scenes that incorporated both the LIFX and VOCOLinc bulbs using the Apple Home app. That said I have found it easier to do this in the VOCOLinc app ironically as it will show you the current colour or temperature, or brightness each bulb is set to if it is switched on, which can make it easier to make scenes if you’ve found a colour you like while messing with the in-app colour wheel. Apple Home by comparison will initially show you a grid of six colours to choose from when setting up a light bulb’s colour. While you can access a colour wheel by tapping on a colour to select it, and tapping on it again, the current colour of the bulb will not be the one that’s selected, which means you have to select it manually, and you have to then preview the entire scene to see if it is iindeed the right colour for what you want. I hope this is something that could be implemented into Apple Home.

I am aware that the Amazon Echo works with a wider array of smart IoT devices, but I feel that I would still use the Apple HomePod over an Amazon Echo or Google Nest as Apple takes privacy seriously, which can make me feel safe.

So I’m sat here in my Apple Homekit enabled Smart Home, and want to kick back and relax. Given an Apple Music subscription I could ask Siri to start playing my favourite music on my HomePod mini. That’s fantastic, but what if I wanted to watch TV? I bought an Apple TV 4K in late January, and have found it to be extremely accessible. I previously owned an Amazon Fire TV 4K, and while it worked beautifully when I first set it up, it started to become quite glitchy, and when I enabled the screen reader, it would not shut up if I was starting a video through Plex. My Apple TV 4K by comparison will talk when I want it to, but won’t when I don’t thanks to my being able to access an Accessibility shortcut.

An Apple TV 4K Set up underneath a TV.

The interface of the Apple TV is much easier to navigate. Sure you can wind up in the Apple TV+ screen which will show advertisements of recommended programmes, but a quick click of the TV button will take me back to the Home Screen which is set up very much like it would be on iOS, save for the rectangle icons in place of iOS’ square ones. I’ve also found that turning on audio description in the Apple TV settings will make any app that observes the setting deliver audio description. I was pleasantly surprised for example to hear a Disney film being audio described to me on Disney+, a service that I’d never been able to turn Audio Description on in before.

So it seems that while Apple still strives to make their devices themselves as accessible as possible, I feel they are trying to make it so that you can use their devices to make more of life accessible, and that I feel is an amazing thing.

UPDATE: Because of every other device manufacturer’s unhealthy desire to copy everything Apple does, we have seen implementations of various accessibility features in various other devices running Android and, and Windows Mobile when it was still relevant, and I think this is a good thing. The only issue is that some of these accessibility solutions can be a wee bit clunky at best, but we can live in hope that these are updated and improved as time goes on.

A New Apple Address has happened

Yesterday, there was an address from everyone’s favourite fruit-named company, Apple. I wasn’t watching at the time because while an Apple event is something most would want to see, I honestly could do without all the sales gimmicks and marketing foreplay before finally seeing the announced products (not to say that I’d turn down the opportunity to be at the Apple Campus in person to see a presentation), so I went to the Apple web-site later on to have a look at what was on offer. That way I could look at the specs of the various devices and really delve in to the details of the devices on offer.

So what devices were there? This keynote introduced a modest update to the iPhone SE, a colourful new iPad Air, a new form factor of Mac called the Mac Studio, and a new colour for the iPhone 13 Pro called Alpine Green, which gives the phone a rugged outdoorsy or Army green hue.

So what do I think? First off the bat, I can pretty much say I will most likely never own a Mac Studio from new as they start at an eye-watering £1,999. While some will argue (and rightly so) that the machine has the bleeding edge M1 Max or Ultra chip at it’s heart, complemented with at least 32GB (for the M1 Max Mac Studio) or 64GB (for the M1 Ultra Mac Studio) of RAM, I lament the lack of upgradability. Some people may say that I don’t get Macs, and yes, I understand that the M1 is an SOC (System on a chip) so it’s not meant to be user upgradable, but if I’m paying £2,000 for a computer that only has a 512GB SSD, you can bet your bottom dollar that yes I want to be able to upgrade the hardware. The machine does have a plethora of USB Type A, USB Type C and Thunderbolt 4 ports, which mean you can add upgrades externally, but for my money I want something that will not only last, but can change as my workflows change. This is why my PC is custom built, and even my ASUS TUF Gaming laptop was chosen partly on my ability to upgrade the RAM and add a second NVMe SSD.

Mac fans needn’t scoff at my online scribblings however as I have owned or had use of many Apple Macs over my personal and professional adult life, and I am very excited about Apple’s M1 chipsets. I would not say no to an M1 powered Mac Mini, or even one of the new tastefully hued new iMacs (though I would not go for the base model) if I had the room to set one up, and I feel that I should give considerable amounts of my time and attention to other operating systems so that I can keep abreast of their developments and how to use them. Unfortunately I will not be purchasing any kind of Mac just now as I just don’t have Apple Computer money sitting in my bank account.

Given the chance, I’d not mind owning the new iPad Air 10.9″. Like Last year’s iPad Pro, this new iPad Air features an M1 chip and 5G connectivity on the cellular models. I’ve had an iPad Gen 7 since May 2020, and I feel that it is pretty much the only way to do tablet computing. I’ve had various Samsung Galaxy Tab models, some Amazon Kindle Fire devices, and a couple of Windows 10 powered tablets, and while they have had their strengths, I feel that iPadOS (née iOS) has matured such that anything you want to do on a tablet simply works better on an iPad. Now that iOS FINALLY has a file structure that is available to the user, along with the appropriate file picker dialogue boxes (pop-up windows?), along with an ever expanding selection of apps, and FaceTime and iMessage, I honestly would recommend an iPad to anyone shopping for a tablet. For me though, one of the biggest pull factors back to the iPad for me has to be the creativity apps. I make quite extensive use of Garageband for iPadOS, and have dabbled in ProCreate and Adobe Photoshop with the Apple Pencil with varying degrees of success. What I like about the new iPad Air is that it has support for the second generation Apple Pencil, whose flat edge which is used for magnetically charging from a supported iPad makes it easier for me to hold and use than my cylindrical first gen Apple Pencil. That said if you do have a first gen Pencil, you’re not out of luck as the iPad air supports it as well as the second generation one.

One stand out feature for me is the new Center Stage support on the newer iPad cameras. this helps to center you in the frame during video calls. I guess this will work in a similar way to the Facebook Portal which also can center the video caller in shot. This is a feature that is sorely mssing from Patchouli Rain’s 2019 iPad Pro, exacerbated by the fact that if you have the iPad Pro in landscape mode, the camera will be on the side of the screen, causing Patchouli Rain to be out of frame during FaceTime calls. Sadly, this feature is not being back-ported to older iPad Pro models.

Again, I do not believe I will own this iPad Air, as I could not foil spending money I don’t have when my iPad 7th Generation works absolutely fine, though it is starting to show it’s age a wee bit. One thing that I could maybe see myself owning is the new iPhone SE, but only if I cannot afford Vodafone’s contract prices for the iPhone 12 and 13. This has been an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary upgrade, and honestly for current SE (2020) users it could be a hard sell. The new iPhone which appears to use the same chassis as the 2020 SE, which itself was based on the chassis for the iPhone 8 does feature new internals under increasingly old looks. An A15 Bionic chip sits in the iPhone SE 3rd Gen behind the same 4.7″ IPS display from the 2020 model and it has been enhanced for efficiency meaning better battery life. This new iPhone SE also features 5G. The rear camera is said to be a 12MP “wide camera”, but how wide remains to be seen as recently the 2020 iPhone SE’s camera has been suffering from tunnel vision it would seem. I’ve often found the iPhone’s colour correction to be intolerable, especially when I’ve wanted to capture some of the breathtaking sunrises and sunsets we have enjoyed over the past couple of years. Often I have to spend minutes trying to wrestle the colour balance into something I want while being constrained to Apple’s presets, and this is less than perfect, especially with the beautiful blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sunsets we experience here in the North-East of Scotland. This new iPhone has Smart HDR 4 which, according to Apple, “automatically refines the contrast, lighting and skin tones for up to four people — so everyone looks their best.” (Apple Inc, 2020, https://www.apple.com/uk/iphone-se/, correct as of 9th March 2022). Only time will tell how well this works.

Like the 2020 version, the new iPhone SE comes in Midnight (Black), Starlight (White) and (PRODUCT) RED. I had end enjoyed owning the Product Red 2020 iPhone SE, but anyone who knows me will know that if I was in the market for a new SE would know that I would want it in blue.

Speaking of new colours for iPhones, I do like the new Alpine Green iPhone 13 Pro. Will I be rushing out to buy one? Absolutely not. I would like however to negotiate a contract with Vodafone that includes a blue version of said iPhone 13 with a considerable amount of storage. My iPhone SE suffered an accident, which rendered me having to rent an iPhone 11 from MusicMagpie.com, and while this is a brilliant arrangement to put an iPhone in the hands of someone who needs it very quickly, I would like to own my own device again if I’m paying for it. I prefer the larger screen, the wider angled camera and the U1 chip of iPhone 11, along with it’s front-facing 12MP camera (Let us never speak of the notch!). Something that concerns me is at this juncture, I cannot find out if the 3rd generation iPhone SE has a U1 chip. Were it not to contain one, this would rule out the new SE for me as a purchase as The U1 chip in my iPhone 11 makes it easier to locate my AirTagged belongings as it can literally direct me to them, where as the iPhone SE (2020) had to settle for just playing a sound on the AirTag I am trying to locate. (I cannot tell you how much of an absolute help this device really is for someone with visual impairment and Asperger Syndrome constantly putting things down absent-mindedly and being unable to find them).

I have been back in the iOS ecosystem since 2020 when I obtained my red 2020 iPhone SE and iPad 7 on contract from Vodafone UK. Since then I’ve been gifted a 7th generation iPod Touch (which I use pretty much every day – I’m listening to some music from it even as I type), and bought an Apple HomePod Mini and Apple TV 4K. Patchouli Rain and I have also set up smart RGBCW light bulbs from VOCOlinc and LIFX around rooms in our houses through Apple’s HomeKit (which in my place is connected to the Apple HomePod Mini as a HomeHub), along with a slew of other Smart devices including some plug sockets and an aroma diffuser (again from VOCOlinc). Add to this menagerie the aforementioned Apple AirTags (and the AirPods I just remembered) and you can see I’ve been locked, hook line and sinker, into the Apple Ecosystem and will be here a while yet. That said I am not too sad about this as iOS (and laterally iPadOS) have matured to the point that even I as a seasoned Android user do not feel too locked down. I do not feel the need to jailbreak my iDevices (I’ve tried that and it’s more bother than it’s worth, especially as I had an interesting quirk where the magnifier would shoot off in a completely different direction to where I was swiping). One thing that I think we all need to remember is that Apple seem to take users’ privacy extremely seriously, even down to iOS asking you if you want a given app to track you across other apps and giving you the option to stop that behaviour. Does this mean that Apple is the be-all-end-all in terms of everything? Absolutely not. I run an Amazon Fire HD 10 as my secondary tablet, and it works pretty well, although it is slowing down a lot now as it has aged. I will say though, for my particular use case, Apple iOS and iPadOS is the best way to go for me. I would like an M1 powered Mac, and really want an Apple Watch, but I don’t think I’ll be ditching Windows 11 any time soon as my primary OS, and my current watch appears to tell the time just fine, so I’ll stick with what I have. That said I want my Mum to have an iPhone SE, as she would appreciate the relatively small size of the device, and I think iOS’ ease of use, together with the relative longevity of Apple iDevices would work well for her, and would allow her to FaceTime with me, my sister and niece easily.

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