Friday, August 21, 2015

What I Want To See in the New Apple TV

On September 9, Apple will unveil to the public the new iPhones in its annual fall event, along with the new iOS (9).  On 09/09.  Yes, I'm sure the coincidence was not by accident.  Meanwhile, credible rumors from the production lines have surfaced that a new Apple TV will come out, on the heels of sales data showing that Apple TV lags behind Roku, Chromecast, and the newly introduced Amazon Fire Stick.

While at this point we have no idea what the new Apple TV will have different from the older boxes, it has been surmised that it will have a faster processor, more memory, and an App Store (that is, developers can now target apps for Apple TV, and more memory to download the apps to).

However, I am truly hoping they took my suggestion of a couple years ago into account.  As I've said before, I think the Apple TV is the best streaming platform for many reasons, not least of which are performance and interoperability within the Apple world.  What it is sorely missing, is to become the center of a Home Entertainment System.

I suggested to Apple on their feedback page (of which of course, you never hear anything after you submit it), that they make a video input on the Apple TV, and sell an external video switch box accessory that can be controlled by the Apple TV remote (and remote app).  Thus, with one remote, you can control your video source on the TV, and the Apple TV.  But more, if they also release a standard that video device manufacturers can implement, the Apple TV remote could also control the switched device.

Imagine this scenario.  You want to watch a Blu Ray, so you switch input to the Blu Ray player.  Because the Blu Ray player you have is "MfATV-compliant", the Apple TV remote also controls the Blu Ray player, moving the cursor around and selecting elements from the disc menu, pausing, etc.  Volume controls, and now you could hook up your MfATV-compliant Cable TV receiver, and use the Apple TV remote (or remote app on your device) to control your cable tv receiver as well.  All integrated, all with Apple TV at the center.

And we have seen the talk about Apple TV being at the hub of the HomeKit that allows you to securely control the Internet of Things around your house (garage door opener, door locks, alarm system, thermostat, and more).  This really begs for a new name, no longer Apple TV, but Apple Home.  And that's what I want to see.

(*)Three Remotes for the video boxes,
Seven for the various streaming players,
Nine for the TV, switch box, games and stereo doomed to die,
One for the Home Owner on his throne,
In the land of Suburbia where the Tech lives,
One Remote to rule them all, One Remote to find them,
One Remote to bring them all, and in the basket bind them
In the land of Suburbia where the Tech lives.
Thus goes the legend...

Here's an excerpt of the screenplay for the scene where they discover the true identity of the One Remote.

Frodwin:  Gandmorph, how do you really know this is the One Remote?  Certainly, it is a great Remote.  It gives me much power over all my devices.  It is precious to me.  But the One?

Gandmorph:  (Snatches the Remote from Frodwin's hand, and tosses it in the fire)

Frodwin: (Gasping) No!!!

Gandmorph:  Wait!  Look and see - the flames touch it, but scorch it not.  The buttons are still the same shape, the brushed finish unmarred.

(The Remote is a burnished, chamfered aluminum-like finish.)

Gandmorph:  (Fetches it out of the fire with a stick, and picks it up in his hand.)  See!  The heat has not made it hot to the touch.  And look at this fiery script now visible on the battery compartment.

Frodwin:  What does it say?  I don't recognize the language.  (Shudders)

Gandmorph:  It is an ancient tongue, spoken only by those who live in the land of Cupertino.  It says, One Remote to rule them all, One Remote to find them.  It is part of the ancient verse... (Reaches out the window and grabs Samwham, lifts him into the house by the ear.)  Samwham Gammer, how long have you been listening at the window?


Is your Internet Service Provider lying to you about your speed?

When it comes to Internet Speed, it may seem like this is a cut-and-dry measurement of "how fast am I?"  However, the deeper I dug into this, the murkier the waters became.  I started out pretty happy - and let me warn you now, if you want to stay happy, don't read any more.  Let me lay out for you my journey, and I will add clarity to how Internet speed is tested, and how it should be tested - and what and why my favorite speed test web site is what it is.

The (Internet Super)Highway To Now

This is the road I took, in the post-dial-up modem world.  I had Comcast as my cable TV and Internet provider, and this was tons better than the dial-up modems I had been using before.  But, eventually (read: years later) I had reliability issues - reliability of the technology, that led to my problems with the reliability of their Technical Support technicians showing up at scheduled times.  And the "I'm so sorry, I'll credit you $20 - oops, we already credited you $20 this month" didn't cut it when I had to call several times a month, and several days each month I had no Internet service.

So, I switched to AT&T.  Now, with AT&T, things were great - for about 18 months.  Speed was the same as Comcast, but customer service was awesome.  Then, it broke down - something went wrong.  The customer service remained great, but after a dozen (literally) on-site visits, fixing and replacing every piece of equipment inside the house and out to the main street drop - the speed just wasn't the mere 18 Mbps that I was paying for.  And by that time, Comcast had zoomed past that performance - and UVerse had absolutely no public plans to boost their speed.

So, I did it.  I split my communications providers - AT&T for TV, and Comcast for Internet.  During this period, I relied heavily on 3 web sites that provide Internet Speed Testing:  Ookla, SpeedOf.Me, and TestMy.Net.  I used these tests to help me determine when I was having issues, and how severe they were.  During the UVerse time, I noticed that AT&T used Ookla's software (and presumably their infrastructure) to test Internet speed.  And, the 3 speed sites gave me slightly different results, which I chalked up to different servers used for computing the speed.  However, the results were similar enough at 18 Mbps, but I noticed a big difference at 50 Mbps.

The Speed Test Difference

So, to me, the way I would think to test, is to throw some data across, and time it - see how long it takes to send and receive.  Further, I would try to "flood the pipe" - fill it with as much data as you can push, and see what its limits are.  That seems simple enough, right?  Ookla uses a Flash-based app embedded in your browser to test speed, so that didn't work from my iOS devices - but they do have an iOS app.  Since I was concerned that Flash may skew results because of its overhead and lack of performance, I searched to find a non-Flash alternative, which led me to SpeedOf.Me.  The great thing about these is the test on demand, but then the problem I had was intermittent speed slowdowns, which was hard to show if I had to go to a web page and click to start a test - over and over, all day and all night long.  So, I searched to find a speed test that took samples over time, and came across TestMy.Net.  The best of both words - non-Flash, and you can set up a repeated sampling every hour for as long as you want.

Once I switched back to Comcast for Internet, however, the disparity in testing between the 3 sites became apparent.  On a 50 Mbps service, I was testing 58 Mbps, 60 Mbps with Ookla, 53 Mbps with SpeedOf.Me, and - get this - 39 Mbps with  Why such a huge discrepancy?

Ookla results

SpeedOf.Me results

Conglomeration of TestMy.Net results over time

Now, we get to testing methodology.  Remember my assumption that a speed test is simply dump some data, see how long it takes?  Turns out that is not how Ookla does it.  And, AT&T and Comcast (as well as many other ISPs) use Ookla as their testing software.  Furthermore, when you search on the web to find places to test your speed, Ookla shows up at the top.  So, here are the differences in their testing methodology:
  • Ookla methodology uses what I would call a statistical hack.  They do the speed test, divide the results into 20 "slices" - and discard the bottom 30% and the top 10% of speeds.  Further, it "multistreams" the data - which means, it runs multiple, simultaneous parallel transfer streams to fully utilize your bandwidth.  In addition, they have servers that are closer to you (mine was Troy, MI), so that it can test with fewer "interference" issues introduced by longer chains of connections.
  • SpeedOf.Me methodology uses a multistream test as well, but it does not discard outliers.  It uses a few servers (mine was Dallas) to more closely simulate what you would get in a real world scenario, but still uses Point of Presence (PoP) servers because, for example, you don't want an Internet test to show the speed between you and halfway around the world.
  • TestMy.Net methodology by default uses a single stream, and does not discard outliers.  If you want, you can change the test to Multistream.  It uses a few servers (not hundreds like Ookla).  The huge advantage here was, you can set up an automated test, and as long as your computer is on and your browser tab left open to the auto test page, you will get a test every hour for as long as you request, with the results stored in a database for your analysis.

Analysis of Methodologies

Statistical Outliers

Now, I don't know if you remember from your college Statistics class about discarding outliers, but there are times in which you discard outliers because they skew averages.  Let me explain, that this is not one of those times.  When you are downloading files (say the latest OS update that is 4.2 GB), you really don't care what the trimmed average speed is going to be.  You care how long it will take - for real.  So the real speed is the size of the file divided by the actual time it takes.  In total.  Without discarding the fastest and slowest portions.  So in the case of testing Internet speed, discarding outliers is actually misleading.

Further, the skewed way in which they discard outliers is totally outright scandalous!  Why discard the slowest 30%, and only the fastest 10%?  It should be even, whatever it is.  In discarding a larger portion of slower data points, you ended up with an inaccurate result that is skewed toward reporting a faster-than-reality speed.

In other words, OOKLA IS LYING TO YOU by fiddling with the results, to make it look faster than it is.  And Ookla is the default speed test that all the cable companies use on their web site, and their techs will tell you to go to it to test the speed.  Does that sound like nepotism?


In computing, "threading" is the method of taking these vast resources we have of computing power and network speed, for example, and splitting them so multiple things can happen "at once".  I say at once in quotes, because in nanosecond timeframes, they are still happening only one at a time, but in our perception, it is so fast that it appears to happen in parallel.  Threads seem to go faster, and thus better utilize the resources because the bottleneck is in the management of the data, not in the processing of the data, so you can push parallel "threads" at the "same" time and achieve an economy of scale.  Indeed, web browsers and other Internet communication software makes use of these parallel threads to achieve better performance over the same connection.

So, if you use the Internet in a multithreaded way, it seems that the testing should show that usage, and how fast it is.  If you were only to use a single thread (for example, that's how we used to do it in the old days of dial-up modems - a single phone connection, and a single data transfer going on over it), you would only effectively use a portion of the bandwidth.  And indeed, this is what is shown by TestMy.Net's single threaded test - 40 Mbps vs. 53 Mbps.  I argue, that tests should simulate actual usage - and, more importantly, should make use of all available bandwidth to tell me "what's the best possible scenario" for the line I have.  So a Multithreaded test is the only way to accurately test your bandwidth.

Server Location

TestMy.Net argues that having servers located near you, on an Internet backbone, is not an accurate test of how we use the Internet, because when we go to a given web site (or other service endpoint), it could be located anywhere.  True, I do understand this reasoning.  However, I have to take issue with it, because when we run a network test, we don't want to see the actual bandwidth to an endpoint - we are already seeing that by going to that web site and downloading!  No, we want to see, what is the total available bandwidth to the backbone, because when I am doing a speed test, I am trying to determine where the slowdown is.  Is it in my house?  Is it in the ISP?  The Internet backbone? Or is it the remote endpoint server that  I am connecting to?  So, a speed test should tell me what's the fastest my connection is running, to the backbone, right now.

Data Collection Over Time

All things go in cycles - and a lot relies on the diurnal cycles of the Earth's rotation, including Internet traffic (tied to our sleep/wake cycles).  However, when we have intermittent issues, it is difficult to trace down those causes without data taken over time, and we can see patterns if we collect data over time.  Further, in the interest of troubleshooting, we can disconnect equipment to isolate issues, and run tests over time.  However, it is critical that these data be collected at regular intervals.  Perfect for a computer - and here is where TestMy.Net shines.  Set up an Auto Test, 24 runs, and you have a 24 hour period of data collection.  You can see the graph, download the graph, or download the raw data and do your own analysis.

Ubiquity of Ookla

After reading the above, you may have come to the conclusion that I think Ookla has us hoodwinked.  You are correct!  However, here is where it gets really insidious.  To further skew what we, the public, find out about our Internet speed - it seems that Ookla has garnered contracts with all the major ISPs to provide their speed test results to consumers.  A Flash-based software, that discards outlying data points in a skewed fashion, and uses questionable methods to report a speed skewed towards fast - I would call that misleading.

We all know how Google searches work - and indeed any search engine.  Those who pay more money, get their results at the top.  And Ookla shows up at the top of speed test searches.  So even people who don't use their ISP's speed test, still use Ookla from the company's web site.

What Do They Have To Say To Me About This Article?

In writing this article, I solicited comments from the Tech Support departments of Ookla, TestMyNet, and SpeedOfMe.  Ookla said they will not, under any circumstances, provide us users with raw test data (only the pruned data), and they politely refused to review this article and respond to these accusations of collusion and misleading.  SpeedOfMe and TestMyNet were gracious enough to review my draft, and agree that I have a good grasp of the issues.

While I like SpeedOfMe because it is Flash-free, I find that hands-down, TestMyNet is the best overall speed test site.  You can use it from any device, choose whether to use single- or multi-threaded testing, and schedule repeated testing over time.  All 3 sites can store your data under a login so you can collect data over time.

What Do We Do Now?

Definitely, stop using Ookla for speed tests - they are lying to you anyhow.  If you call your service technician, and they tell you to go to their page for speed test (e.g. or, pay attention - you will see Ookla's logo in the graphics.  Complain to them that Ookla is inaccurate and misleading, and that they should not use it for speed tests.

If you are so moved, write a letter of complaint to your ISP that they use Ookla, who skews the results to look faster than they are, and that they are lying to their customers.  And, if you can think of anything else that concerned Netizens should do, post it in comments below.

iOS 9 - Should you upgrade?

With fall (and September) comes the new Apple stuff, and of course, for those of you staying with your existing equipment, the new Operating System.  I have been testing iOS 9 for several months now, and I think there are some very compelling reasons you will want to upgrade:
  1. Security - As NPR reported, IT experts all agree the number 1 method to ensuring computer security, is to apply OS updates as soon as they come out.  You need to stay ahead of hackers, and this is the best and easiest way to do it.  NEVER forget, your "phone" or tablet is a full-fledged, desktop-class computer.
  2. Low Battery - one great feature of iOS 9, is that if your battery gets low, it switches to low power mode.  In this, it turns off all the non-essential parts of your device, so that it lasts longer.
  3. Low Memory - iOS updates take room to download and install, and on devices with smaller memory, you may not have had enough to update.  The remedy until now has been to download on a computer with iTunes.  But now, iOS 9 will determine which apps it can delete to make space, delete them, and restore them once the update is done.
  4. WiFi Calling - to me, this is a GREAT feature (for those of us not on T-Mobile).  AT&T added me to their WiFi beta testing program, and working in areas where I get a low cell signal, but have great WiFi - I have been able to stay on phone calls with absolutely perfect clarity and no dropped calls.  This is awesome.  The phone automatically switches as it becomes necessary.  The one caveat in the agreement to turn on WiFi calling, is that they cannot use location information for enhanced 911 location.  So you have to register an address when you turn on WiFi calling, and you can change it at any time, that will be sent to 911 if you place a call on WiFi.
  5. Frequent Contacts - before iOS 9, you access frequent contacts (as an option) at the top of the app switcher screen.  With the redesign of app switcher, they moved it to the "swipe right" from home screen.  And, it only shows the last 4 to 8 contacts.  To me, this was a big beef.  I personally asked them to restore the contacts on the app switcher screen as an option, but so far they have vetoed the request.  If it makes it to Live in this manner, and you were used to using the contacts feature, you will (like me) have to get used to going to Home, swiping right, and only getting the last few on the screen.  Not as intuitive, not as accessible.
  6. Better Battery Life - at the June 2014 WWDC (Worldwide Developer Conference), Apple introduced Metal, a new "lower-level" closer-to-the-chip graphics programming engine.  Designed to replace OpenGL (which is cross-platform, and not optimized for the Apple OS and hardware), it allows, for example, game developers to write games that take full advantage of the graphics hardware, and do it in the most efficient way possible.  That was iOS 8.  In iOS 9, Apple has rewritten their Core Graphics libraries, upon which all apps (and all of iOS) are built, using Metal.  This means that, after your upgrade, your device will run faster, and use less battery power for the same tasks.  As an aside, I have been really enjoying the introduction of Metal to OS X (the Mac OS) this year in El Capitan, where it has made my 6-year-old laptop run even faster, and the battery last even longer.
  7. Faster - even on older devices, the Metal rework has made the entire OS faster.  You would think you wouldn't notice it on a 64-bit iPhone 6, but it was noticeable even on that platform.
  8. Very stable - I have been an iOS Beta tester for 4 years now, and this release has been extremely stable.  In fact, only in the first couple of releases did it crash, and then only at night while I was sleeping.  I knew because when I used TouchID to unlock it, it asked for my passcode.
Now, there are many other enhancements, including more capabilities with Siri - but I'd say those are the top big things you will notice.  Many under-the-hood changes are for developers, and will accelerate the capabilities of apps, so you will see newer kinds and better apps come out soon.

Monday, August 10, 2015

iOS 9 Supporting WiFi Calling - Not Just for T-Mobile

With today's release of iOS 9 Beta 5 (and Public Beta 3), Apple is now allowing us to select "WiFi Calling" in the Settings app for carriers like AT&T.  However, AT&T mobile users are presented with the message "Wi-Fi Calling isn't yet available in your area, but check back soon."

The WiFi Calling feature allows you to make and receive phone calls - via your standard cellular account - if your phone has WiFi coverage, but lacks a cellular signal.  This means, for example, if you are at the doctor's office and don't get a signal, but they have a guest WiFi that you can connect to, your phone works 100% just like an iPhone (and not just for texting and apps).

AT&T has made this feature available to users in some areas - and mine was lucky enough to be one. After using it all day, it has been totally flawless.  I highly recommend it, and if you are in an area with good WiFi, but bad cellular - upgrade to iOS 9 as soon as you can.