It’s hardware week at TidBITS! Josh Centers takes a look at Wyze Sense, an inexpensive sensor package for Wyze Cam security cameras that can detect motion or an open door. Next, Josh explains how to fix common Apple hardware problems with some deep cleaning. Finally, Glenn Fleishman joins us this week with advice on how to buy hardware that will be well-supported for years to come. Notable Mac app releases this week include OmniFocus 3.4, HoudahGeo 5.3, Agenda 6.0, and Little Snitch 4.4.
It’s vacation season, and perhaps the most stressful part of going away is wondering what’s going on in your house while you’re gone. In “A Prairie HomeKit Companion: HomeKit Security Provides Peace of Mind” (11 September 2017), Julio Ojeda-Zapata explored how to use HomeKit accessories to monitor your home, and while I prefer HomeKit, compatible accessories can be expensive. The cheapest HomeKit camera I can find, the D-Link Omna, runs about $130. And, let’s be honest, unless you live in a dorm room or a one-room cabin, you’ll need several cameras.
That’s part of the allure of the Wyze Cam security cameras, which start at just $20 (see “$20 WyzeCam Security Camera Is Almost Too Good to Be True,” 28 February 2018) and top out at a whopping $30 for the Wyze Cam Pan (see “Wyze Cam Pan Helps You Watch Your House for $30,” 26 July 2018). The downside is that they don’t support HomeKit (well, not without a bunch of hacking), but for the price of a single HomeKit camera, you can outfit your entire house with Wyze Cams.
For a complete home security system, you also need motion and contact sensors that can tell you when someone enters a room or when a door or window opens or closes. They exist for the HomeKit ecosystem as well, but again, you’re going to pay. A single Eve Door & Window costs $40 and the cheapest HomeKit motion sensor I can find, the ONVIS Smart Motion Sensor, costs about $26.
Wyze Labs has once again disrupted the home automation market by providing a complete sensor package for just $19.99. Called Wyze Sense, it includes two contact sensors, a motion sensor, and the bridge they need to communicate with your Wyze cameras. If you want more sensors, a four-pack of contact sensors costs $19.99 and a single motion sensor runs $5.99. And they’re tiny—in the photo below, you can see how much smaller the Wyze motion sensor is compared to the HomeKit-enabled Eve Motion.
You need at least one Wyze Cam to use the Wyze sensors. Wyze Labs sent me a sensor starter kit and a Wyze Cam Pan to try it out. The bridge is a simple USB dongle that fits neatly in the square hollow on the back of a Wyze Cam. It also works with the Wyze Cam Pan, but it will stick out.
Bridge placement can be a bit tricky. Wyze claims that one bridge should cover an entire house, but I didn’t find that to be true. I first installed it in my upstairs Wyze Cam Pan, which covered most of the house, but I had to move it because it couldn’t connect to the contact sensors on my downstairs doors. Moving it to a Wyze Cam in my downstairs kitchen fixed that. I’d estimate the bridge’s range to be about the same as Bluetooth (Class 2)—about 30 feet (10 m), but that depends on your home’s construction and whatever interference might be present.
Installing a sensor is as easy as removing the adhesive backing cover and sticking it where you want it to go. Wyze recommends placing the motion sensor at head height. As for the contact sensors, they’re small and flexible enough that you can put them basically anywhere you want to detect something opening or closing: on a door, a window, the fridge doors, a cookie jar, you name it. Wyze Labs’ YouTube video offers some ideas, including using it to sense when your dryer has completed a cycle.
After you place them, you then have to pair the sensors by connecting them to a camera in the Wyze app (you can choose any camera that has a bridge attached) and pressing a recessed button on the sensor itself with an included tool that resembles the iPhone’s SIM removal tool.
Wyze estimates that the sensor batteries will last about a year, and they are replaceable: CR2450 batteries for the motion sensor and CR1632 batteries for the contact sensor. Wyze says that the adhesive backing isn’t meant to be replaced, but I managed to do so on one part of the contact sensor by scraping it off and replacing it with double-sided mounting tape that I cut to fit.
Once you’ve set up your sensors, you can view them in the Home tab of the Wyze app. It shows you the current state of each sensor, such as if motion is detected or if a door is open. Tap a sensor to see a log of trigger events.
You can set your sensors to trigger recording on any set of Wyze Cams you choose. In other words, you can place a Wyze Cam in front of a door, connect a contact sensor to the door and frame, and get a short video whenever the door opens. In the right-hand screenshot above, you can see thumbnails from a Wyze Cam.
Of course, you can also choose to receive a notification whenever something triggers a sensor. One thing I like about the contact sensor trigger is that you can set it to alert you only if it remains open for a duration you choose, up to 24 hours. That’s handy if you have a kid who leaves the fridge open. Those notifications can be annoying because you get one every time a sensor is triggered, which can be pretty often. Thankfully, Wyze has added a bell icon to the Home tab that lets you turn all notifications on or off with a tap.
I’m bothered by the lack of HomeKit support, but that’s to be expected in devices this cheap. Wyze Labs has said that it is working to add HomeKit support but hasn’t indicated when that’ll happen. Belkin, however, added HomeKit support to its Wemo Mini through a software update, so I’m optimistic that HomeKit support will eventually come to the Wyze devices allowing me to integrate them into the rest of my home automation setup.
Despite their lack of HomeKit support, if you’re looking to improve security around your house and you already have a Wyze Cam, it’s hard to beat a set of motion and contact sensors for $20.
Have you ever had something professionally repaired, only to feel like an idiot when you saw how simple the actual repair was? I had that experience recently when we took my wife’s iPhone 8 Plus to the Genius Bar. The problem was that the volume out of the earpiece was too quiet, even at full volume. We had tried adjusting various settings to no avail.
I felt like a dummy when the Apple support guy pulled out a lens brush, stabbed and brushed some crud out of the top speaker (the one that looks like a line above the screen), and handed the phone back to my wife. Calls were once again crystal clear! What made me feel even dumber is that I bought her the iPhone 8 Plus to replace an iPhone 6s that had suffered from a similar problem (on the plus side, that iPhone is now a great iOS 13 test device).
So I decided to see if I could fix that old iPhone 6s with a little spring cleaning, which led to a series of cleanings that fixed some long-standing hardware issues.
Assemble Your Gear
Before we get started, there are a few tools you’ll want to find from around the house or purchase. They include:
- Lens brush
- Lens blower
- Cotton swabs
- Rubbing alcohol
- Paper towels
- Wooden toothpicks
- Vacuum cleaner with brush and crevice attachments
- Microfiber cloth
- Compressed air
If you lack a lens brush, lens blower, and microfiber cloths, you can buy a lens cleaning kit for under $10.
Increase Call Volume by Cleaning Your iPhone’s Top Speaker
Thankfully, I happen to have a lens brush. If you don’t have one, they’re inexpensive and handy for electronics cleaning. In a pinch, you could use a soft-bristle toothbrush, but be very gentle with it.
I started by doing what I saw the Apple guy do: “stabbing” the ear speaker with the brush. That seemed to provide some improvement, but after several stabs and sweeps, it still wasn’t nearly as loud on a test call as I had hoped.
Next, I pulled out a cotton swab and used it to scrub the speaker. That resulted in black lines on the swab, which, along with some modest volume improvement, told me I was on the right track. I decided to pull out the big guns and add a little alcohol to the swab.
You always need to be careful when mixing liquids and electronics, even with rubbing alcohol, since it can be up to 30% water. The goal is to have the swab damp enough to clean, but not so wet that it could drip into whatever you’re cleaning. I dip the swab in the alcohol and then squeeze it out into a paper towel, leaving the swab just barely damp with alcohol.
Scrubbing with the damp cotton swab produced big black streaks on the swab. After that, I stabbed the speaker a bit more with the brush and finished by blowing the speaker out with a camera lens blower. Don’t use compressed air here, since it can leave moisture behind and damage delicate parts with its high pressure. That combination of techniques worked—the speaker once again put out full volume.
iMac: Fix Performance Issues with a Vacuum Cleaner
Ever since installing macOS 10.14 Mojave on my 27-inch iMac with Retina display, it had been suffering slowdowns and beachballs. I wondered if CPU temperatures had something to do with it. I installed iStat Menus, a great utility that’s included with MacPaw’s Setapp subscription service, and was alarmed to see idle CPU core temperatures between 90º and 100º C. I haven’t been checking to see what “normal” temperatures are in this iMac, but that seemed too high for idle. (Adam Engst’s identical iMac seems to idle around 70º C and may need some cleaning too.)
Over time, as fans and heatsinks accumulate dust, they don’t remove heat as well as when they were clean—the dust acts as an insulator. That heat buildup makes the CPU less stable and prone to damage, so the CPU will throttle itself in an attempt to bring the temperature down. In other words, something as simple and commonplace as dust can make your Mac slower and less stable.
In a traditional tower design like the old Mac Pro and Power Mac models, cleaning is easy: open it up and blow out the dust. In a sealed-up iMac, that isn’t so easy. Sure, you could take it apart and clean it out, and some techno-masochists do that, but I wouldn’t recommend going that far unless there was something seriously wrong, because it’s far from simple and you could easily cause new problems.
The standard advice here is to use compressed air to blow out the vents, but that’s a terrible idea since doing so doesn’t remove the dust but instead spreads it around the inside of the iMac. For a better approach, employ a vacuum cleaner.
I know what some of you are thinking: vacuum cleaners can produce a lot of static electricity, which can be dangerous for sensitive computer components. However, vacuuming should be safe as long as the case is on and you’re not touching bare circuit boards.
The iMac has two sets of vents. The first set, a series of slots along the bottom of the display, sucks in room-temperature air. The second set on the back of the display, just behind where the stand connects to the display, expels warm air. You might notice some dust inside those vents if you look closely.
Here’s how to clean those vents:
- Power down your Mac.
- Disconnect all peripherals and set them aside.
- Clear any extra junk off your desk.
- Lay a blanket or towel down on your desk, and carefully lay the iMac face down on it.
- Scoot the iMac so that the bottom vents hang over the edge of the desk so you can easily vacuum them.
- Vacuum the bottom intake vents, which extend the width of the display. A notched crevice tool is handy for this, or you can use a soft brush attachment.
- Vacuum the exhaust vents, again with either a soft brush attachment or the crevice attachment. It might be a little tricky because the stand hinge is in the way, but do what you can.
- Vacuum the ports on the back of the iMac, along with vents on any external hard drives, monitors, and other peripherals.
- While you have the vacuum out, clean the entire area on the desk and around the computer to reduce the amount of nearby dust that could be sucked into the iMac.
- Stand the iMac back up (you may need a helper to pull the towel or blanket out from under it), reconnect everything, and power it on.
Once I did that, iStat Menus reported CPU temperatures between 50º and 80º C during a normal workday.
If you have iStat Menus, here’s one last thing you can do after vacuuming to get even more dust out. Click the iStat Menus temperature in the menu bar, choose Fans, and click High. That runs the fans on their highest setting, which will help expel more dust. Let that run for a few minutes, and then you can set it back to System Controlled.
AirPods: Fix Charging and Connection Issues
AirPods are amazing. They’re also disgusting. In your pocket, they’re little dirt magnets, and in your ears, the speaker openings seem to double as wax scrapers. I had begun to have trouble charging my AirPods and getting them to connect after being removed from the case, but after a good cleaning, those problems went away.
First, you’ll want to clean the case. A microfiber cloth is fine for the outside and much of the inside. Use a wooden toothpick to scrape gunk out of crevices and a cotton swab for larger crevices, like where the AirPods fit into the lid.
Pay special attention to the holes the AirPods fit in, since the charging connectors are at the bottom. I like to spray compressed air into those holes and then run a cotton swab down there to pick up any remaining debris.
Finally, there are the AirPods themselves. Start by wiping them all over with a microfiber cloth, especially the metal charging connectors on the bottom. Now here’s the crucial part: take your toothpick and scrape carefully around the edges of the speaker grills. Each AirPod has three sets, two on the inside and one on the outside, and they will almost certainly be caked with earwax and other gunk. Also, note the tiny microphone hole below the outside speaker grille. You can insert the tip of your toothpick into that to clear out any gunk. I also used a lens blower to blow the hole out.
Once that ugly business is done, use a lens brush to clear any debris from the speaker grilles and finish off with a lens blower to blow away debris that remains.
Other Problems You Can Fix with Cleaning
In addition to these problems above, there are a few others that you can often resolve with a little cleaning:
- Bad Lightning connections can often be fixed by picking lint and other crud out of an iPhone’s or iPad’s Lightning port with a wooden toothpick. Follow it up with a blast of compressed air. Be careful to avoid the pins in the port, and avoid using a metal tool that could damage the pins.
- If you have an old iPhone or iPad with a sticky Home button, try cleaning the rim with an alcohol-soaked cotton swab while depressing the Home button. That often fixes it. As noted above, blot the swab with a paper towel first to remove excess liquid.
- If you have a MacBook with a troublesome butterfly keyboard, you can vacuum the keyboard with a soft brush attachment to reduce the chance of dust and crumbs from getting into the sensitive mechanisms.
- I fixed a sticky Tab key on my 2016 MacBook Pro using the same method as with the Home button above, rubbing around the key with an alcohol-soaked cotton swab while pressing the key down. But if you’re having more significant problems, remember that Apple has a repair program for those models (see “Apple Announces Service Program for Butterfly-Switch Keyboards,” 25 June 2018).
How do you keep your Apple devices clean and performing their best? Have you had any great cleaning success stories? Let us know in the comments.
What could go wrong with backing a Kickstarter campaign for an app-controlled LED light bulb that had a built-in AirPlay speaker? A light bulb! With a speaker! Fantastic!
Although the speaker bulb shipped late—always a risk with crowdfunded hardware—it worked as promised. Or at least it did, until the company went under. Then the app stopped working and never functioned again, despite the company’s promises. At least the bulb retained its last brightness settings.
If only I had followed my own rules about purchasing hardware! To be sure, I was curious to try out something new, and I considered the money spent an experiment instead of a bad purchase. But I’ve been more wary ever since, and I try to listen carefully to either my inner skeptic or my spouse, an “early rejector” whose feelings about technology are rarely off base.
You can largely avoid getting stuck with hardware that “bricks” when it should otherwise still be functional by following my advice. The summary? First, buy from companies that are likely to be around in the future. Second, focus on products that can operate independently of an app or cloud-based service.
The best advice is to buy mature, well-documented products, and if that sounds like “No one ever got fired for buying IBM,” well, there’s some truth to that saying, even if you’re the one who would be firing yourself.
Evaluate the Company’s Current and Future Support
While you always want to have confidence in a company from which you buy a device, it’s all too common for companies to disappear into the ether shortly after your purchase. Here are some signals to watch for.
The term “startup” used to have a more precise meaning, but it’s fair to define it today as a company that hasn’t yet found a path to ongoing profitability. Startups get a lot of attention, push the envelope, and sometimes take in massive amounts of revenue from early products, or even pre-sales of such products.
But if you’re buying hardware that you expect will require firmware updates, maintenance for an app, cloud communication, or potential repairs, there’s no way for a startup to make that promise to you. It might go bankrupt, be acquired by a larger firm that has no interest in supporting existing products, or simply lack the resources to maintain older products.
I have some solid examples:
- The Skydog Smart Family Wi-Fi Router provided parents with fine-grained control over each family member’s Internet access. Yahoo covered the acquisition of its maker PowerCloud Systems by Comcast in “Skydog Is Dead, and Comcast Killed It” (2014).
- Eye-Fi combined an SD storage card with Wi-Fi so the card could automatically upload photos immediately after they were taken. I looked at how Eye-Fi intentionally rendered older cards non-functional here in TidBITS in “Eye-Fi Demonstrates the Danger of Cloud-Dependent Hardware” (30 June 2016).
- Revolv was a home-automation hub that could control a wide variety of devices. Nest, owned by Google, bought Revolv in 2014 to acquire the company’s engineering talent and shut down Revolv entirely in 2016. The Guardian wrote about the situation and user backlash in “Revolv devices bricked as Google’s Nest shuts down smart home company” (2016).
The concern about buying products from startups remains paramount with early mesh-networking companies, which make products that intelligently and dynamically connect to one another to form large Wi-Fi networks. While these networks use Wi-Fi for client connections, they all rely on proprietary protocols for mesh interconnection, which is the real secret sauce of the systems. Mesh startups face competition from established networking companies like NetGear and Linksys that have leaped in with both feet. That may have led Eero, under severe financial pressure, to sell itself to Amazon earlier this year. So far, the product remains unchanged.
Of course, if you’re seeking the thrill of trying something new, or you’re sure that a startup’s product will immediately provide you with a significant benefit no other hardware can offer, you don’t have to be in it for the long haul.
Let me be the first to admit that I’ve purchased perhaps too many items through crowdfunding campaigns run at sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. However, I have rarely been disappointed, and only a few times have my disappointments cost me more than a nice lunch. (Even the light bulb I mentioned at the beginning continues to provide light.)
But I recommend that most people avoid crowdfunded projects unless you also have a strong desire to support the maker and can cope if the product never ships.
The Coolest Cooler remains a deeply cautionary tale. After a massively popular Kickstarter campaign in 2014, the company sold over 60,000 units of the Bluetooth speaker/blender/cooler combo, bringing in over $13 million. Despite that initial success, the company ran into manufacturing problems and still owes backers about 20,000 units.
Even for campaigns that fulfill brilliantly, you may not want the first unit that rolls off the assembly line because it may not be built as well as later units. That’s especially true for makers producing a new or radically different product while racing to meet deadlines.
Divergent Products from Established Companies
Companies trying to find new lines of revenue often diversify, but you may not want to be the guinea pig as a firm tries to find a new direction, commonly referred to in the press as a “pivot.” I tend to avoid products that are entirely different from anything that an outfit previously made until they’ve been in the market for a while and I’ve been able to both read product-testing reviews and user reviews on Amazon and elsewhere.
Arguably, Microsoft is an example of both extreme success and total failure in this category. Its Xbox gaming system was a major shift in direction for a company that had been known primarily for Windows and Office, but it quickly became a serious competitor to long-established game consoles from Nintendo and Sony and is now nearly two decades old.
However, the Windows Phone is an example of the opposite. Faced with Apple’s iPhone (2007) and then Google’s Android (2009), Microsoft brought out Windows Phone in 2010, a seemingly strong contender that never gained traction. Microsoft’s desperation purchase of Nokia’s handset business in 2014 took down both that company’s pioneering-but-lagging line of phones and Windows Phone by 2017.
At a far lower scale, Google has a graveyard of in-house hardware, much of which lasted less than a year. That list includes Google’s Nexus Q, a weird multimedia home-entertainment adapter introduced in June 2012, discontinued by January 2013, and dropped from ongoing support in May 2013.
Companies Facing Adversity
Do you want to be the last person to buy a device from a company that then goes under? Especially for more expensive items, it’s always worth reading up to make sure that a company isn’t in the middle of its CEO being ousted, a credit crunch, or a devastating lawsuit. A quick Google News search for the company or product name should turn up any noteworthy problems.
Products without Spec Sheets
Skip ’em. Especially for reasons of compatibility and performance, you want to be able to get a rundown on enough details to predict how well a unit will work today and how well it might work with your ecosystem of existing hardware and media in the future.
I’ve found a surprising number of products from otherwise seemingly legitimate and long-running companies where I can’t get down to brass tacks and find out things like the capacity of a battery, the number of Wi-Fi radios, or its compatibility with other products. If the company can’t manage to put out a detailed spec sheet, the product may not be well-supported, has been overhyped by marketing, or may be entirely fictional.
Products from Faraway Countries
Companies and products from China dominate this category, but I don’t want to paint that nation with a broad brush, because so many excellent items from large and small companies alike are designed or (more commonly) produced in China. Instead, I’d caution you to pay close attention to products from any company that doesn’t have a business presence in your country.
China, in particular, is known for having seemingly thousands of companies that sell inexpensive commodities like cables, adapters, and other consumer electronics through Amazon Marketplace. Some—perhaps many of these—are low quality, while a substantial fraction are perfectly well made. The trick comes in figuring out how to differentiate the good from the bad.
When USB-C cables and adapters began to proliferate in 2015, Google hardware engineer Benson Leung began testing items that claimed to be USB-C certified or compatible. His work helped consumers navigate an ocean of potentially dangerous crud, partly because some USB-C cables can carry high-wattage power and partly because the standard can be difficult to implement fully.
A quirk in postal rates meant to subsidize developing nations is one reason why we see so many Chinese-made items sold so cheaply in the United States. Items made by Chinese companies can be shipped to the US more cheaply than companies within the US can ship to other domestic addresses! (That pricing quirk appears poised to end.)
Buying from a company outside your own country can make it difficult to get technical support, service, or exchange a faulty product, and the company’s location may make it impossible to pursue typical methods of getting relief in the event of fraud.
In this global economy, there are plenty of good reasons to buy hardware from companies headquartered elsewhere in the world, but be sure to factor in follow-up difficulties as part of your purchase process.
Tied to an App or the Cloud? Keep Your Feet on the Ground
Modern hardware tries to make use and configuration easier by relying on smartphone apps. Some devices may also lean on the cloud not just for storage or syncing settings or other data, but as the brains that drive a service. Both can be problematic when things don’t work out as expected.
On the app front, companies typically have to support both iOS and Android apps.
With yearly updates, sometimes significant interim bumps, and security fixes and policy changes to these operating systems, a hardware company has to make a substantial investment in keeping its apps up to date. Even if the hardware remains completely functional, its associated app could become unusable if the firm isn’t ready for an operating system update. This, in turn, renders the hardware temporarily useless for users who install updates right away.
Other times, a company might discontinue a product or replace it with a new model and stop updating the necessary app. That’s what happened with the AirPlay-enabled Twist light bulb that I mentioned earlier. The company turned out its lights a couple of years ago. In January 2018, the company told 9to5mac that the app and related cloud services required for the bulbs and app to talk to each other were “paid for and covered for a long while.” Then the app stopped working a few months later.
In particular, many home-automation and smart-lighting devices rely on a combination of cloud access and an app. Even if an app continues to work without updates, cloud services can fail or not be paid for, making the app useless. This is a case for focusing on devices that support HomeKit, since then Apple’s Home app may provide the necessary controls even if the product’s native app goes under.
(I have a happy-ending counterexample, though: the Withings Wi-Fi scale I purchased a while back. In 2016, Nokia acquired Withings, discontinuing the original app and incorporating scale support into another of its own apps. In 2018, Nokia sold the division back to the founder of Withings, and what appears to be a third version of the app still talks to the scale. My scale died recently, but the app abides!)
Some expensive hardware leans heavily on the cloud due to a Silicon Valley principle often stated as “software eats hardware.” Some features that used to require dedicated chips and specialized hardware can now be simulated in software as long as enough computational power is available. But that much processing power can be expensive to build into individual devices, and in many cases, the number-crunching is needed only occasionally. Companies therefore opt to make less intelligent hardware that’s less expensive, shifting the computation and control into the cloud. This approach can also make it feasible to add new features that wouldn’t be possible with baked-in hardware.
A great example is the Glowforge, a 2D laser cutter that was funded largely by the most successful crowdfunding campaign for hardware, along with traditional venture capital. Glowforge users rely on a Web app to upload designs for cutting and engraving. When a user clicks to “print” the design, the Web app passes the details to a back-end system that uses cloud-based servers to compute the extensive, optimized set of instructions the cutter needs. The Wi-Fi-connected cutter then receives the plan and lights up a big friendly button. (Disclosure: A friend founded the company, and I received a unit free after referring enough buyers in an affiliate program.)
By itself, a Glowforge cutter is just a lump of expensive plastic, metal, and silicon, plus a bit of firmware that drives the laser and talks to the Internet. To avoid buyers’ concerns about it bricking, the company released a good chunk of the firmware that drives the printer and has signaled its intent to continue. The printer has “open firmware,” meaning it can be changed without requiring cryptographic keys possessed by Glowforge or other special arrangements. It’s not a trivial matter to go from those files to a fully functional Glowforge, but there are enough owners that should Glowforge fail, an independent development community would surely rise as it has with maker-oriented hardware that has been discontinued in the past.
Making cloud software and device firmware available isn’t the same as providing an open system with failover plans in case of company failure. But it’s better than a closed environment that ensures devices stop working when a firm or product comes to its end of life.
Pick Mature and Well-Documented Products
It may not be as much fun to buy long-standing devices with well-tested features from established companies as it is to ante up for the latest shiny bouncy tech ball, but that’s usually the safest course of action.
If you follow the principles I’ve laid out above, you’re much less likely to buy into products with problems. And if you just can’t resist the latest Kickstarter campaign or hot startup’s product, go into it with the right expectations: you’re providing support and buying entertainment, not necessarily getting a device that will take a licking and keep on ticking.