The Nerd Handbook

This classic Rands in Repose post explains a lot why I’m into so many projects right now outside of work. Nerd’s always have to be building and tweaking. It also explains why the recent changes in the past six months have made me so much happier and productive…I wasn’t getting time to work on these types of projects.

Duct Tape the Cord – Apple TV, HDHomeRun, and Comcast

The Problem

I feel like my home theater setup is always a ticking time bomb. “Universal” remotes suck, I haven’t met anyone who likes their Comcast cable box, switching inputs is annoying at best or never worked at worst, and it was rare for my wife and I to use the TV & not get an input or device out of sync.

Thinking with my Product Manager and Support Engineer trained mind, I eventually figured out the core problem to solve: it is too damn hard to consume media on my TV.

Goals

My acceptance criteria to fix my home theater became:

  • Eliminate the space wasting TV stand in our very small living room, along with as many wires as possible.
  • Consolidate to one remote and one media playback device to avoid input switching and out of sync devices.
  • Provide as consistent of an user interface as possible.
  • Keep access to my live TV and sports (specifically, baseball…I love my Red Sox).

The Solution

The biggest problem is how to get rid of the Comcast cable box, without losing my live TV/Sports. Thankfully, enough technology trends have finally converged to make that possible. This isn’t cutting the cord and switching to 100% streaming services, it is more like duct taping the cord. It is a good halfway point until a 100% streaming future is possible for us live sports fans who are in-market.

I ended up going from this home theater configuration:

  • 32″ Vizio TV on a flimsy particle board TV stand.
  • Yamaha 5.1 receiver, but with only 3 speakers connected (Left/Right and Center) due to small room.
  • Apple TV 4
  • Comcast X1 Cable Box
  • 3 “everyday” remotes (Harmony Touch, Comcast, and Apple TV)
  • Who knows how many wires and certainly not organized.

to my new home theater configuration:

And this in my server cabinet:

So how does this solution work?

Silicon Dust HDHomeRun Prime

Since live sports are a requirement in this house, the key to getting rid of the Comcast X1 cable box was finding a replacement that still allowed access to my cable TV subscription. This is the duct tape part 🙂

The Silicon Dust HDHomeRun Prime solved this problem. First, the HDHomeRun Prime utilizes CableCard technology to properly authenticate with Comcast’s TV infrastructure. This is the same technology that TiVO uses to work with Comcast or any other Cable TV provider. Which means this device is 100% legal in the eyes of everyone involved.

Second, the HDHomeRun actually doesn’t connect to your TV directly. Instead, the HDHomeRun connects to your home network via ethernet. Any compatible device on the TV side will stream video/audio from the HDHomeRun over you home network. Since the HDHomeRun supports up to three streams at a time, one HDHomeRun might serve you entire house’s needs. What are the odds of watching live TV on three separate devices with streaming services also in the mix today? I think most houses could get away with one HDHomeRun Prime.

Setting up the HDHomeRun Prime was very simple for me:

  1. Visited my local Comcast office to pick up a cable card.
  2. Inserted card into HDHomeRun Prime.
  3. Plugged in ethernet and power.
  4. Visited http://www.comcast.com/activate/ to activate the CableCard.

What if you never want to give another dime to Comcast and can do without regional sports channels, but just need local channels? Good news, Silicon Dust also has HDHomeRun models that work with Over-The-Air (OTA) antennas, the HDHomeRun Connect and HDHomeRun Extend. I didn’t review those models, but this guide should largely apply minus the CableCard parts.

Apple TV and Channels app

Next up, I went to my Apple TV’s app store and searched for the Channels app. It’s $24.95, but worth every penny as this is the glue that makes it possible for one Apple TV to handle all of your home theater needs when a cable subscription is still required.

Channels is designed specifically to view HDHomeRuns streams on your TV. Configuration of the Channels app is simple:

  1. Launch the Channels app
  2. Go to the Settings page
  3. Select the HDHomeRun Prime that Channels automatically found on my home network.
  4. Select the “Scan for Channels” option.
  5. Favorite various channels as I see fit.

Now every time you launch the Channels app and go to the Favorites view, each channel will display a graphic for whatever show is currently on. This is my favorite feature since we only watch 6-7 channels consistently. Within seconds I can know what is on TV and switch to it. I can even browse what is on live TV from the Apple TV dashboard if the Channels app is on the top dock.

During the initial setup, I had the Apple TV connected via Wi-Fi (802.11ac) instead of connected via Ethernet and could still stream the HD broadcast I was watching without a hiccup. That said, I highly recommend connecting via Ethernet to avoid any risk of Wi-Fi connection drops as these streams are very bandwidth heavy.

The only downsides I have seen so far:

  • No grid-based TV guide, since apparently this is patented. The app does great job showing what is on TV now and what is coming up next if you are on a channel, but doesn’t give you that entire view of the TV broadcast landscape now and in the future.
  • HDHomeRun Prime doesn’t support access to Comcast’s OnDemand services. But I don’t remember the last time I used OnDemand. And Comcast has an iPad app if I really need it.
  • DRM’d channels (usually only premium channels such as HBO) are not available in the Channels app. However, this really isn’t a big deal, because your Comcast subscription gives you full access to HBO Go, which is basically the same thing. Game of Thrones episodes are usually available on HBO Go within minutes of the live broadcast starting.

And since Channels is just an Apple TV app, it is easy to switch to another app (Apple Music, Netflix, HBO Go, TED talks, etc) as I see fit without switching inputs or a lot of button presses. One media device to rule them all!

Remote

Another bonus with this setup my Apple TV remote is the only remote needed now. The remote will wake the Apple TV and turn on the TV at the same time. The volume buttons will turn on the sound bar if it isn’t already on. And to turn off everything (except the sound bar, which goes into energy saving mode when not in use) just requires holding down on the TV button on the remote and select the Sleep option.

I have managed to get the TV out of sync a couple of times by not successfully shutting it down via the remote, but by and large this works well. While the remote itself has some quirks, it works and is far simpler compared to the 50+ button universal remotes.

And the lack of a channel number input interface? I could care less about remembering what channel #851 is. Channels hides all of that channel # complexity away with favorites and the all channels view.

Conclusion

The results? I have a single UI and media box experience (Apple TV 4) that can even watch live TV on my Comcast subscription (Channels App + HDHomeRun Prime), while easily allowing me watch Netflix, HBO Go, or listen to Apple Music. All in one user experience and one TV remote. I can also add more Apple TVs in the house (in our family room and my home office) and just share the one HDHomeRun, without paying the extra CableCard and “HD Technology Fees” that Comcast loves to charge.

The future also promises to bring a Channels app version compatible with the upcoming HDHomeRun DVR. I personally don’t need a DVR, but I know some folks really want one and this will fill that need.

What is amazing is this experience really only became theoretically possible in October 2015, when Apple finally released an Apple TV with an App Store. It then took a team from Fancy Bits until early November 2015 to come up with the amazing Channels app and integrate with the HDHomeRun Prime. It took me stumbling across this combination in early March 2016 to hit the ground running.

After a week with this setup, I can tell I will  struggle when visiting any house without this setup.

Equipment List

Interesting Links

1Password Smart Folder for One-Time Passwords

I wanted to create a list of my accounts that use a TOTP code (often called by sites as 2-Step Verification, One-Time Password, or 2-Factor Authentication). Luckily it is easy to do this when you store the TOTP secrets in 1Password.

  1. Go to the File menu and select ‘New Smart Folder’
  2. Set the following simple criteria:
    1. “All” of the following is true
    2. “Any field name” “is” “One-Time Password”

Screenshot of this Smart Folder criteria:

Smart Folder for TOTP logins

Save the search and call it something like “2FA Enabled”

Now I can just click on this Smart Folder in 1Password and instantly view all of my logins that have a TOTP code configured.

Two weeks with the Apple Watch

Two weeks ago, I purchased my Apple Watch. I chose the Sport model in Space Gray, 42mm. Why the Apple Watch vs. a regular watch vs. wearing no watch? What are my opinions of the Apple Watch? Would I recommend it?

My past experiences with watches

I have worn watches off/on over the years, although I have not worn one since I bought my first iPhone, the iPhone 3G, in 2008. Generally I have had these problems with traditional watches:

  • It’s awesome not having to change the battery for long periods of time, until you realize the battery has died at the most inopportune time. I never have a battery on hand either, which meant finding a store locally that had one or waiting for Amazon to ship one to me. Additionally, some watches are quite difficult to open without the proper tools.
  • I loathe having to update the watch when changing time zones, for DST, etc. In fact, I have a growing dislike for any device (alarm clock, stove, microwave, etc) that requires manual time updates.
  • Outside of telling time, it is not that useful to me. I would frequently forget to put it on. And in 2008, I just stopped putting it on.

The Apple Watch is really different

Others have complained about a watch that requires a daily charge, but this doesn’t bother me on bit. No more worrying about the watch dying when I needed it most (when I’m awake), assuming it had more than enough power to get through the day and that I plugged it in every night. Plus never worrying about having to change the battery.

I like the looks of the Apple Watch and it seems it would fit for every occasion, from exercising to formal events. It tells time accurately and stays up-to-date no matter what time zone I’m in. I can add complications for different bits of info I’m interested in.

The intriguing possibility of not having to pull out the iPhone, iPad, or MacBook for certain bits of information such as the time and notifications really caught my eye. Similar to the classic saying of using a scalpel vs. a blunt instrument, little efficiencies add up over time.

How has the past two weeks been?

The remarkable part of the past few weeks is how effortlessly the Apple Watch has been integrated into my life. It truly does seem to make certain tasks a bit more efficient and it has already changed several behaviors of mine.

Fitness

I have been very bad about exercising the past few years, as life working for a startup has occupied a lot of my time and energy. But the gentle taps of the Watch informing me about my activity progress and the subtle indicator of my current activity goals for the day is addicting and has gotten me moving far more than I used to.

Tracking my fitness activity on the Apple Watch
Tracking my fitness activity on the Apple Watch

Now every morning I take a 15 minute walk outside before work that equals ~ 1 mile, something I never used to do. I find myself trying to stretch out my activity a bit longer to meet some milestone, such as 100 calories burned or 20 vs. 15 minutes exercising. I often go for walks every day after work as well, sometimes 3-4 miles, a lot more frequently than I used to. Not to mention that I use a standing desk at my work, which helps the stats as well.

I’m consistently above my goals most days, which likely means I should increase those goals soon. I’m contemplating how I can add a morning run to my routine and competing in more 5K’s. Additionally, I would like to get some strength training too.

Daily Calendar

As a Product Manager, my work life is ruled for better or worse by my calendar. So being able to view my next event at a flick of a wrist has been very handy. During work hours, I switch my watch face to a more text-based version that not just shows the next meeting on my calendar, but what room that meeting is in. This has become very handy at the end of a meeting, where I can quickly check where I am supposed to be off to next without making a scene.

With the modular watch face, I can easily glance at what's next on my day.
With the modular watch face, I can easily glance at what’s next on my day.

But on weekends and evenings my schedule isn’t quite as busy. As a result, I will often switch to a watch face that is much more minimal and traditional, with fewer complications turned on. For example, I typically remove the calendar complication and use the utility watch face. This intentional simplification and slightly fuzzier sense of time aids me a little bit with trying to relax and unwind.

Showing my version of the Apple Watch's utility face, which I use on weekends and evenings.
Showing my version of the Apple Watch’s utility face, which I use on weekends and evenings.

Smart(er) with notifications

Everyone reviewing the Apple Watch is right: notifications on your wrist are very handy, but be smart about which notifications you allow. Receiving notification taps too often becomes annoying and not a great use of your time. So immediately I began turning off notifications for various apps.

I’m not quite in a happy place with this yet, but I’m getting close. With these tweaked notifications, I seem more aware of when I feel a notification on my wrist. I can also sense the different tap/vibration styles a bit better as there are fewer of them. And it looks/feels more natural for me to check the time in social settings when I’m sneaking a look at a notification.

Saving time by more efficiently checking notifications (combined with fewer of them) is a nice win.

Apps

So far third-party apps haven’t been that exciting for me, with a few exceptions. I do use:

  • Dark Sky for weather notifications. This is probably my favorite Watch app so far. Every morning at 7am I am notified about the day’s conditions and I receive any alerts if precipitation is about to start/end.
  • 1Password is invaluable already, as I can put various codes (such as my garage door code) in an easy to find place.
  • MLB At-Bat for its glances. I can easily check the score of the Red Sox game.
  • I use Siri a lot for recording reminders that come to mind, which are added automatically by OmniFocus into its Inbox. Lots of quick reminders being created now that I would otherwise forget.
  • I put all of my 2FA codes on the Watch as well.
  • It was pretty neat to receive eBay notifications from their app when an item I was auctioning received a bid.

I’m really curious about what watchOS 2.0’s native app capabilities do to help increase my use of 3rd-party apps here.

In Defence Of WordPress

I’m very impressed with how much easier it is to maintain WordPress than back in the day. Especially when it comes to automatic updates.

The internet is verbally attacking WordPress again. I read a lot of hate towards WordPress for its latest security vulnerabilities that have become public. What I don’t see is praise in how those updates are handled and distributed to its millions of users. Cross-Site Scripting Vulnerabilities The last 2 weeks, 3 major security releases have […]

Source: In Defence Of WordPress

Using Drafts & Hazel to add notes to DEVONThink

I’ve been experimenting with DEVONthink for the past couple of days as a replacement for Evernote and numerous files semi organized across my devices. So far I’m warming up to this approach, however I had a major problem: how to get notes I take on my iPhone or iPad into DEVONthink on either my personal or work computers. DEVONthink’s sync capabilities are notoriously limited and I’ve heard mixed reviews about their iOS app. I ended up potentially solving the problem of adding content to DEVONthink from iOS by using this by using Drafts for iOS and Noodlesoft’s amazing Hazel app on my Mac.

First, I created two folders in the two syncing services I am using:

Dropbox folder name: DEVONThink_Home
Google Drive folder name: DEVONThink_Work

Within Drafts, from the actions menu I copied the Save to Dropbox and Save to Google Drive actions. I then renamed those actions to be Dropbox – DEVONthink and GDrive –> DEVONthink respectively.

Custom actions to save a Drafts note into Dropbox or GDrive.
Custom actions to save a Drafts note into Dropbox or GDrive.

We then need to get these newly copied actions saving the note I take into the correct folder, which I set in the respective action’s settings. It is also here where I set the default title by taking the first line of each note, giving me some hint of what it means.

Draft settings for DEVONthink import folder in Dropbox
Draft settings for DEVONthink import folder in Dropbox

Next on my Mac, I create a Hazel rule that monitors the DevonThink_Home (or the Work version in the case of my Work computer). If any file is dropped in there, Hazel immediately moves it to the global inbox in DevonThink and adds a tag Drafts_iOS.

Hazel rule for DEVONthink import
Hazel rule for DEVONthink import

One stumbling block that I couldn’t figure out is how to find the DEVONthink Inbox folder for use in this action. The path to that folder is:

Path to the DEVONthink Inbox Folder
Path to the DEVONthink Inbox Folder

I tested this integration briefly and in maybe a second or two, the note in Drafts was synced up to Dropbox, to my home Mac, and into DevonThink.

First try. I’m impressed.

I can see some potential future directions to take these workflows. I can use a lot more intelligence on Hazel’s rules to detect things like titles formatted a certain way and containing keywords, then automatically dropping the file in the correct folder in DevonThink instead of the inbox. It also would be neat to send a URL to DevonThink and have it automatically clip the page, although I haven’t figured out how to do that yet.

Trying on an Apple Watch

A couple of hours ago, I tried on the Apple Watch for the first time at my local Apple Store.

The verdict: the 42mm stainless steel version, especially with the leather loop or Milanese Loop, is stunning. The software, although on used briefly, seems very well executed. For the first time in a while, I could see myself wearing a watch again.

But I am not going to get the Apple Watch, at least to start. It’s personal circumstances that won out. I simply have other priorities that $699 would go a long way towards and the Apple Watch’s benefits don’t outweigh those priorities.

Additionally, in the past six months I have already purchased a new MacBook (due to a liquid incident), a new iPhone (because mine was up for an upgrade and needed one), and a new iPad Air 2 (because my iPad 3 was barely usable anymore). I think I have spent enough on gadgets, at least in the first half of this year. Maybe in the fall I can revisit this. By then, there will probably be a software update or two, probably the full Apple Watch SDK will be out, and we’ll see where the 3rd-party apps take this device.