Switching from Linux back to the Mac

I used a Linux Thinkpad laptop for a little over 1 year at work. The latest long-term-support Ubuntu version of Linux was installed. As the months passed, it got more and more unreliable. The most serious problems were:

  • When powering on, it would often require 3 full power cycles to get to the desktop after login. I would be staring at a blinking cursor, and it would hang, with no progress, and I’d have to power off and on again.
  • Waking from sleep reliably would almost never happen, especially with a USB-C external monitor connected. I’d have to reboot when it couldn’t wake from sleep, sometimes multiple times.
  • Randomly forgets 200% scaled resolution at 4K and brings me back to 100%, requiring a trip to settings to set it back.
  • Fans spin louder when connected to any external monitor at any resolution.
  • Requires numerous tweaks to get many things working. For example, AirPods used to be normal volume but are now very low volume and can’t be reset, monitor brightness can’t be controlled via function keys and requires command line tool to adjust, fingerprint login only works 20% of the time, etc.
Image credit: itsfoss.com

All this time I had an older Mac laptop for another work project right next to it, and it by contrast was utterly reliable, even with gobs of enterprise security software installed on it. Wakes from sleep instantly 100% of the time, never forgets resolution, works perfectly in clamshell mode, and is mostly silent unless it’s doing an update.

My workplace has since replaced the Ubuntu Linux Thinkpad laptop with a M1 MacBook. It’s silent at all times. Really the only problems I have are occasionally it will set the external monitor to 100% brightness when waking from sleep, and once every couple of weeks I will have to unplug and replug the external monitor to get anything shown on the screen again. Other than that, it’s fantastic. No reboots needed.

Gravity Blanket

I bought a Gravity weighted blanket a few months ago. A few people have asked me my opinion on it, so I’m putting down my thoughts here:

Pros:

  • It’s like a big hug every night. Comfortable, no off-gassing smells, well-made.
  • I go to sleep faster and stay in bed longer with it on.
  • Cover is washable.
  • Even the cooling version is warm in the winter. (in a 65-67F / 18-19C household) If you’re used to wearing pajamas, you may want to sleep without them. If you keep your house above 70F / 21C, you may not want a weighted blanket.)
  • You may be able to get a discount on Black Friday or by emailing support politely.

Cons:

  • If you’re over 5’10”, you should probably get the King/Queen version. The Standard version is just too short. My feet kept sticking out, and I had to return/exchange it (and pay $55 return shipping).
  • The King/Queen version is expensive. ($265 + tax when I bought it)
  • It’s heavy: 35 pounds, and can be a bear to move.
  • Comes with suffocation warnings for children under a certain age – that’s how heavy it is. This is an adult blanket.

Despite the cons, I’m glad I got it. I was going to get another big plush Korean blanket (which is pretty heavy itself at around 15 pounds) but decided on Gravity and it’s even better.

Error: Windows Could Not Prepare the Computer to Boot into the Next Phase of Installation

I kept getting the above error when installing Windows 10 and Windows 11 from two different USB sticks onto a ThinkPad X1 Extreme laptop. I had followed the process outlined at FreeCodeCamp for creating the USB sticks from a Mac.

Finally, I figured it out based on a comment on another board: During Windows setup, delete all the partitions except for the first one. Now installation proceeds, to a point:

Then I got the error “Windows could not update the computer’s boot configuration.” To resolve this and the previous error, I reset the BIOS to the default configuration, and crucially, used MBR to format the USB stick instead of GPT. ( diskutil eraseDisk MS-DOS "WIN10" MBR /dev/disk2 )

Now Windows installed successfully!

Apple Music vs. Spotify Discover Weekly vs. Amazon Discovery Mix in 2021

Decided to give these services another shot in November 2021.

  • Apple Music’s New Music Mix gave me 25 genuinely new songs, 9 of which I liked, a 36% success rate.
  • Spotify’s Discover Weekly gave me 30 songs, some dating back decades, 5 of which I liked, a 17% success rate.
  • Apple’s selection was a variety of progressive house, techno, dance, electronica.
  • Spotify’s was entirely drum and bass, even though I’ve listened to plenty of other music using their service. (But had checked out another Spotify drum and bass playlist recently.)

I used Spotify’s web player, which gave me no ads during the entire time I listened. (using their free plan.) For Apple Music, I used the generous free trial (2 or 5 months) given by the Shazam app. The Apple Music player on the Mac is janky – with odd back navigation. You also can’t drag their New Music mix to the sidebar, unlike Spotify where Discover Weekly is easily findable.

I also tried Amazon Music’s “Discovery Mix” and “You Might Like”. Stunningly, out of 25 songs in the discovery mix and 30+ in the “You Might Like”, not a single song was good. It’s like Amazon didn’t even look at my Amazon Music library to discover what I like. It was all random garbage.

I’ll give the win to Apple Music this week, as they overall had the most new music I liked. I even loved one of the 9 liked songs they recommended. (For the record, I loved two of Spotify’s, but Apple just found more new music that I at least liked.)

iOS (iPhone 13 Pro Max) versus Android (OnePlus Nord N200 5G) in 2021

I recently got a cheap Android phone – the OnePlus Nord N200 5G – to use as a backup, to play around with Android, and to use when walking in potentially dangerous areas or while traveling in countries where it’s likely to get stolen.

Here’s what I’ve noticed, as a new Android user:

Pros:

  • Some parts of Android are quite similar to iOS 15 – the Chrome browser has the same tab interface that Safari does. Gestures are the same or similar. (but the gestures are a bit slower/jankier)
  • Some things are better than iOS – like settings being integrated into apps.
  • Control center seems a bit more configurable (but uglier and slower) than Apple’s control center.
  • App drawer is similar to App Library but instead of being organized for you, it’s a simple alphabetical list with tags.
  • Android is far more configurable, but I found myself not needing to change much. What I wish could be configured actually isn’t configurable, as we’ll see below.

Cons:

  • There’s a loud, bright, and annoying carrier boot up jingle which I needs an app called Silent Boot to disable.
  • The second day I had it, it woke my family up at 7:30AM with a loud Amber alert/siren. We don’t currently commute, and are used to waking up later, so this was aggravating. Thankfully alerts are easily turned off (Messages – Settings – Alerts).
  • Preponderance of triple dot mystery menus.
  • Unremovable “Never Settle” OnePlus wording on widget screen. You can change the text but can’t free the space the spot occupies.
  • Unchangeable red “1” in digital clock display and weather temperatures (subtle OnePlus branding), but I hate it.
  • Amazon shopping app keeps getting reinstalled by itself.
  • Instantly spammed with Amazon Treasure Truck texts as soon as I inserted my SIM card.
  • Auto rotate is slow and unreliable compared to iOS.
  • Google is worse on privacy than Apple.
  • You get around 5 years of supported upgrades on iOS, often adding many new features, vs. 1-2 years on Android
  • App quality is generally worse than Apple app store quality, although scammers are in both stores.

As far as the hardware goes:

  • The 90Hz display on a sub-$200 phone is pretty nice. The $999 iPhone 13 Pro is the minimum model with a higher (120Hz) refresh display. Most other phones, including the standard iPhone 13, only go up to 60Hz.
  • The 6.7″ OLED iPhone Pro Max display is definitely nicer – better viewing angles, deep blacks, more info on the screen. But having a 6.5″ LCD display for under $200 is not bad either. It’s definitely usable.
  • The camera on the OnePlus is garbage, but GCam (the Google Camera app from the Pixel) makes pictures look a bit better. The hole punch design on the front camera is nice though – better than the iPhone’s notch.
  • Fingerprint scanning is, surprisingly, just as reliable and fast as the old touch-id iPhones. A lot more reliable than the fingerprint scanner on my Thinkpad laptop.
  • Sound quality is quite a bit worse. Audio only comes from one side instead of from all around like in the iPhone Pro. There’s no easy connection to AirPods either, though I haven’t tried Google’s version of AirPods.
  • 5G works too, though it’s still not as fast as the iPhone’s ultra high speed mmWave 5G.
  • 4GB of RAM vs. the iPhone Pro’s 6GB. Still better than my old iPhone XR which was struggling at 3GB.
  • Battery life is good – the N200 actually has a bigger battery (5000 mAh) than the one in the iPhone 13 Pro Max (4352 mAh). And the weight is much less due to it being made of plastic vs. glass & metal. I find the Pro Max getting heavy to hold in my hands at times.

Overall, it’s not a bad phone, especially for under $200. It’s amazing to me you can get this level of hardware for such a low price.

Cheap Backups with Arq and Backblaze B2

For people who don’t mind doing a little one-time backup setup, Arq + Backblaze B2 is one of the best deals around. I’m currently backing up close to 300GB for 86 cents per month. 86 cents!

Arq Backup is currently a $49.99 one-time purchase. Backblaze B2 pricing depends on how much you store and restore from it. Arq automatically keeps the total storage used within your storage budget. Backups are fast and happen in the background. If Arq detects you’re using your computer, it throttles the upload speed so you never notice anything happening.

For folks who need something very simple requiring almost no setup, Backblaze Personal Backup stores unlimited data for $6/mo. Also a great deal, and no Arq required.

How to get TurboTax to Import Last Year’s H&R Block PDF Return

I decided to try TurboTax 2020 this year after getting fed up with bugs in H&R Block’s software. It seems TurboTax’s quality isn’t great either. I kept getting unsuccessful import errors when trying to import H&R Block 2019’s PDF.

The trick, I discovered, is to prune down what H&R Block puts in the PDF:

  1. Open H&R Block and pull down the File menu.
  2. Click Print, and deselect everything except for Forms to Submit.
  3. Print to PDF. The PDF that’s generated will import successfully into TurboTax.

I guess the TurboTax importer was getting confused by the cover pages and/or supporting forms/worksheets. You’d think Intuit would test this. (and perhaps revamp their importer or at least include a useful error message)

Other annoyances I’ve found with tax software this year:

Presearch Search Engine Review

Today the news came out that the Brave browser team bought a search engine. This led me to find out about Presearch, a search engine that pays you in cryptocurrency, while keeping your searches private. Just do your normal searching in it (no excessive searching or bot searches), and you get paid. The catches seem to be:

  • You can only withdraw in 1000 PRE increments.
  • You can get up to 8 PRE tokens per day. Searching every day, that would mean 125 days (~4.1 months) until payout.
  • At first, you can only withdraw 50% of your tokens, but this percentage improves as your searches appear more legitimate. This is done to combat abuse of their system.
  • PRE is currently worth about 6 cents per token, so that’s $60 every 4-5 months. Not bad. (This assumes you search normally without trying to game the system.)

Search results so far are actually good. And on the rare occasion when they’re not, they offer one-click links to DuckDuckGo, Google, and many other search engines.

Presumably, Brave will be doing the same with their search engine, but since their engine isn’t released yet, I’ll stick with Presearch for now. Check it out and get a 25 PRE bonus (~$1.50, currently) for signing up through this link.

Update: The redemption requirements have changed so it basically takes almost 2 years to redeem $100. Not worth it, decided to switch to Microsoft Rewards via Bing instead, where at least you can redeem every month.

My Winix Air Purifier Experience

The air quality in my part of the world gets pretty bad during wildfire season, so I decided to pickup a Winix C545 air purifier, mostly based on the Wirecutter review. Here’s what I found:

Pros:

  • It’s really quiet on low and medium, and only starts getting noticeable on high. I’m sensitive to noise, and it works for me. At low speed, it’s usable in the same room as you video conference in without anyone else noticing. It’s also suitable for sleeping – for kids and adults. Definitely quieter than air conditioners and dehumidifiers.
  • Design-wise, it blends into the room. Our kids ignored it from the start and have never pushed the buttons.
  • Price is reasonable – you can get one for $129-$200, with the average price being around $178. A good chunk of that price goes toward the included HEPA filters.
  • It has a bright blue light when the air quality is good, but that light (thankfully) automatically switches off when the lights are out.
  • You can instantly tell when air is good, slightly off, or bad, via the LED indicator light on top which glows blue, yellow, or red.
  • Air purification works quickly for cooking smells, wildfire smoke, and flatulence.

Cons:

  • The WiFi feature is mostly a gimmick. You can check filter status via your phone, and turn on/off the purifier, but I find it easier just to open it up and look at the filter every month. You can vacuum out the filter screen easily. I disabled the WiFi shortly after I got it. If it had HomeKit support, I might have left WiFi on, but it doesn’t.
  • We liked the C545 so much, we got second one – a refurbished one for $89 – for our downstairs bedroom. I found that it’s almost the same as new, with the exception of one problem: Once every couple of months, it refuses to notice when the room light has been turned off. You have to unplug the purifier and plug it back in for it to automatically shut the blue light off again.

Overall, recommended if you have air pollution or a wildfire season in your area. You can occasionally find them at Costco, Amazon, and Winix direct (for refurbished models). Warning: they sell out fast during wildfire season, so get one off season.

Sidecar and Fast User Switching

I am thinking about getting an iPad for an external display for a Mac mini and have a couple questions about how it would work:

  1. If you use Fast User Switching to switch to a different user, what happens to the Sidecar display?
  2. If the display sleeps, what happens?

Nobody was able to give me answers to this online, so I tried it with my wife’s iPad and MacBook. Here’s what happened:

  1. When you switch to a different user, the iPad display shows the login screen background, but no login prompt. The login prompt shows on the primary display. After you login with the new user, Sidecar disconnects. And you can’t use Sidecar with a user that is not signed into the same iCloud account as the iPad is.
  2. When the primary display sleeps, the iPad shows the iPad login screen. When the primary display wakes up, the iPad automatically wakes and shows the secondary desktop.

Luna Display/Astropad can’t really switch between two users either. Here’s what their helpful support rep told me: “When you switch to the second user, even without User A fully logging out, the [Luna Display] app will still remain running on the iPad and keeps the last-known screen images on display. This means that User A’s screen contents will still remain on the iPad after User B logs in, and Astropad will remain connected to User A even if User B opens the Astropad app, until the connection is stopped by either quitting Astropad before switching to User B, or closing and restarting the iPad app.

I did find an interesting way to Sidecar to a headless Mac mini from the iPad, via a shortcut.

I only have space left on my desk for something about the size of an iPad. A 10″ IPS monitor of dubious origins costs $120-$140. It would have a lower PPI vs. an iPad, a lower quality display, and not be as generally useful. Though it would allow Fast User Switching. The iPad and iPad Air sometimes go on sale around Veteran’s Day for $279-$289, so for double the price I get a full iPad built into the display. Not bad. I think I’ll get one!