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.

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.

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!

How to Export Contacts to CSV on MacOS

I spent some time trying to figure out how to export contacts to comma separated values (CSV) on my Mac. This was in preparation for sending out Christmas cards.

On the Export menu, it only mentions you can export to vCard, PDF, or to an Archive file. I looked around for a programmatic way to do it, and found some possibilities, but everything seemed too complicated.

After some experimentation, I figured it out. All you have to do is:

  1. Select a bunch of contacts in the left column. (Hold shift while clicking to select multiple contacts.)
  2. Copy them to the clipboard
  3. Paste into new Numbers spreadsheet
  4. File > Export to CSV

Easy!

Watching Blu-Ray Movies with Wireless Headphones

Seven months ago, I wrote about how I connected two pairs of headphones to a Blu-ray player. That worked okay, but I got tired of untangling headphones every time my wife and I wanted to watch a movie.

Then this Sony Blu-ray player — with Bluetooth — popped up brand new on Craigslist for under $88. I bought it, and tried it out with both AirPods and AirPods Pro. In each case, it technically worked, but the AirPods were too loud, and the AirPods Pro were too soft. The Bluetooth volume control built into the player didn’t work to change the volume of the AirPods.

Sony BDP-S6700 Blu-Ray player with Bluetooth

So I had to figure something out. What are the cheapest true wireless headphones that sound decent and are compatible with the Sony player and its Bluetooth volume control? I decided to take a chance on the clumsily named Sony WF-XB700 true wireless earbuds for $60. They worked great, and provide a wide range of volume control.

Now we no longer have to think about untangling cords. We just pop-in a disc with one earbud in my ear and the other in my wife’s and it’s off to the movies!

Moving from Mac to Linux

My primary work laptop is now a Thinkpad with Ubuntu Linux 20.04 on it. To make life easier when switching from the Mac, I needed quite a few utilities and configuration tips:

Things I haven’t figured out how to do yet:

Please let me know if you’ve figured out how to do either of these last two things on the Thinkpad with Ubuntu.

My Experience with Linux on the Desktop

The company I work for encouraged me to use a top of the line Linux laptop — one of the latest ThinkPads — as my daily driver. Here’s what I’ve found in the first few days of using it, with Ubuntu 20.04.1:

  • Coming from a MacBook with its butter-smooth trackpad, the touchpad is painful. It’s not smooth at all, even with the default Synaptics drivers. It’s almost impossible to precisely focus your cursor in a small area. It’s really astonishing how bad it is.
  • Don’t expect to have external monitors work right away. I plugged my LG 4K monitor with a USB-C cable that works fine with several MacBooks into the ThinkPad. All I got was a cursor on the external monitor screen. That’s it, a cursor. Changing resolutions and refresh rates hasn’t helped. A colleague spent half a week futzing with settings until he finally got it to work. Another colleague recommended an unstable open source Nvidia driver instead of their proprietary driver, but I haven’t gotten that installed yet.
  • After I haven’t been able to get a single Bluetooth peripheral connected. Not a wireless keyboard, wireless trackpad, or wireless headphones. The Ubuntu Bluetooth settings app either hangs, crashes, or just displays a spinning cursor on the device you try to connect. After updating the ControllerMode to bredr in /etc/bluetooth/main.conf , I was able to get my AirPods to connect. To get the wireless keyboard or trackpad to connect, I had to unpair them from another laptop.
  • You’ll need a couple utilities to get most keyboard shortcuts to behave like a Mac, including spacebar for QuickLook, and Cmd-H to quickly move an app out of the way. I still haven’t figured out how to change the keyboard shortcut for going back in my browser. Alt-Left-Arrow just scrolls to the top of the page. Update: The author of Kinto, the keyboard shortcuts utility, is going to make Alt-Left-Arrow/Alt-Right-Arrow work in browsers in an upcoming release.
  • Scrolling web pages (in any browser) is slow and choppy. Supposedly you can fix this in a config file somewhere, but I haven’t found where yet.
  • 10% of the time, the laptop refuses to wake from sleep, requiring a long press on the power button to power off and reboot.
  • The fans spin up for no good reason when I plug the power cord in. Thankfully, they aren’t too loud.
  • I kept having my wireless bluetooth trackpad disconnect and reconnect, every 2-4 minutes. Eventually I figured out this was due to the UPower daemon polling the trackpad for battery status. Adding NoPollBatteries=true to /etc/UPower/UPower.conf and then running systemctl restart upower.service and the problem seems to have gone away.
  • I also had the problem where every time the bluetooth trackpad disconnected/reconnected, it would lose its trackpad speed and natural scrolling settings. To fix this, I updated the mutter package.
  • Finally, the brightness on my external monitor kept resetting itself. I would have to run xrandr –output DP-1 –brightness 0.7 to reset it to something non-blinding, multiple times per hour. I fixed this by disabling night light and stopping the GNOME Setting Daemon’s color plugin from starting at login.

So what’s good about it?

  • The fingerprint scanner is actually pretty good. It’s not quite as reliable as the MacBook’s, but it’s 80% of the way there. It’s nice to unlock the machine and use sudo with a fingerprint.
  • In full screen mode, you can put another app window in front of the full screen app. This is convenient, and unlike macOS. On the Mac, you’re forced into the full screen app and have to switch completely out of it to get to another app.
  • Gnome’s Activity view (Alt-Space), a hybrid of the Mac’s Spotlight and Expose, is very nice. It’s fast and accurate.
  • The ThinkPad itself is fast and battery life excellent. The plastic body isn’t as solid feeling as an aluminum MacBook, but it’s better than your average creaky PC laptop.
  • WiFi works without a problem.

The janky touchpad and choppy scrolling are the hardest to deal with. If I figure out how to fix these, I’ll update this post.