Sunday, April 25, 2010

Brute Electronics

I may or may not have blogged about my AEV Brute before:

It's basically a 2006 Jeep Rubicon with a stretched frame and custom bodywork from AEV to make it a pickup truck. It's also got some other goodies like a 5.7L Hemi, 4.5" long arm lift kit, 37" tires, winches on both ends, etc.

I recently spent some time updating the electronics in it, though. First up was a new stereo headunit from JVC very similar to this one. All I wanted was something that had a built in HD FM tuner and front panel USB port that would operate my iPhone, and this one has it. We added a rear AUX input, too (you'll see why later). The real beauty of this headunit, I think, is that you have the choice of iPod control with the unit or you can leave the control on the iPod/iPhone itself. I prefer the iPhone interface, so I use that. The dash speakers were upgraded and I had a custom rear speakerbox built by the fine folks at Beechwood Metalworks:

That's the AEV logo in the speaker grills. Awesome work. The amps are buried inside the cabinet.

Next up I needed to add my HAM radio. The model I chose is the Yaesu FTM-350R. It has built in APRS functionality with the optional GPS unit, and it's a dual transceiver with crossband repeat functionality. All that adds up to allowing me to relay my mountain biking position from a small handheld through the more powerful mobile unit in my truck. In real time. I mounted the display, speaker, and GPS in the roof of the Brute:

I used a RAM bar mount and arm to mount directly to the top of the rollbar. Then I just used zip ties to mount the Yaesu external speaker to the rollbar. Finally, I put the GPS module in the alpine window for a great view of the sky. The main unit of the radio was mounted right on top of the speakerbox:

The microphone can just lay over the center console and I can use it perfectly. The wiring for the unit runs through a grommet in the top of the speakerbox. I haven't done it yet, but eventually I plan to wire the unit so that it turns on and off with the ignition switch unless I override it with a relay and switch I'll put in.

The antenna is mounted somewhat temporarily, currently. I just put it on a piece of aluminum and c-clamped it to the bed.

The final piece of this was to add mounts for my GPS and iPhone. I simply bolted RAM ball mounts into the tray on top of the dash. Then I used RAM arms and the Garmin 376C mount to put the GPS and iPhone on the dash:

Note the radar detector above the mirror. That's a Valentine 1, IMHO the best radar detector on the market. It's hard wired in to switched power. I used the visor mount turned around backwards and slid under the plastic trim that's above the windshield. To do that I had to take the curved piece off the plastic part that slides onto the V1. I then pulled the trim piece out some to get it in there, and reassembled. Then I used a small piece of sticky velcro to space it out to level it and help keep it from vibrating around.

Anyone who has tried to put a V1 in a Jeep knows that the suction cup mounts don't work well because the windshield is so vertical. It sits at the wrong angle. And the visor mount is fine except, well, you can't use the visor any more. There are mounts that hang from the rear view mirror that work fine, but they block your view significantly in a fairly important spot. This spot doesn't block anything (other than annoying sunlight that can penetrate over the mirror and isn't blockable by the visors, and that's a good thing!).

Here's a final shot that shows the XM puck that the Garmin uses. It's magnetic and stuck to the windshield frame. It's wire is perfectly sized to just push into the gap between the hinge and the windshield frame, which wraps around the corner and just goes into the door jam through the weatherstripping. It goes right into the dash and under the defrost venting over to the middle where it plugs into the GPS:

I'm really loving this setup. The speaker is right near my head, but nowhere I can hit it. That's good, since I can leave the volume low to monitor things while still having the radio on. The controls are very easy to reach and highly visible right above the visor. Yes, it's a lot of visible electronics for theives, but the Jeep is equipped with a full alarm system with power door locks and hard doors and hard top.

Also note that the XM radio on the GPS is piped into the stereo via that rear panel auxiliary input we put on the stereo. The beauty of the Garmin 376C with XM is that it gets realtime weather radar information via XM radio and overlays that on the GPS map. It also puts the turn-by-turn navigation information on top of the XM radio, so if you're using navigation and listening to XM you can't miss any of your directions.

It's possible that I could have used a serial output on my Garmin GPS to the input of the Yaesu HAM radio instead of installing the optional GPS unit. That solution would have taken more hours of work than it was worth given the relatively low cost of the Yaesu add-on. I also consider it a good redundancy to have two GPSs in a vehicle like this. The Yaesu doesn't do navigation, really, but it does show direction, speed, and position, and could be very handy if the Garmin fails. The iPhone has GPS, too, but I really don't feel great relying on that. It's another good backup, though.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Review of the iPad

Well, I know everyone and their brother has already done a review, but I can't resist throwing my two cents in, so here goes...

I really like it. Why? The huge screen, relatively light weight, and incredible battery life. Okay, great, but what does it DO? Well, that's the big question now, isn't it? It's a great web surfing tool. Okay, but you've probably got something for that already. It's a great email reader, and a good email sending device if you mostly send short messages or don't mind adding the optional keyboard. Okay, but you probably already have that covered, too. It's a really nice picture viewing device. And video viewing device. And gaming device. And book reader. And calendar. And note taker. And a whole lot of things.

But nothing you can't already do with a laptop, right? Well, the thing is it does all that better than a laptop. Sure, there are things it won't do that a laptop will, but the things it does are all done exceedingly well. And in a light form factor with a battery that will last OVER 10 hours! Not many laptops can even come close to that.

What can't it do? Things like video editing, running Windows applications, or even someone every day tasks like running Quickbooks. Is there a killer application that makes it a "must have"? Not yet. But the thing you do get is the App Store, which will likely mean there will be a killer app or forty at your disposal soon. What do I dig now? The ABC app, the Wall Street Journal app, the fact that the email client in some ways is better than the OSX one, and how much better viewing video is than on the iPhone/Touch. The Blogpress app is pretty good for entries like this, but I had to add the picture using my Mac.

What doesn't it do yet that it will? Multitasking, a proper Facebook app (don't get me wrong, you can use Safari to do Facebook fine, but the iPhone app is better than using the web in many ways, and I expect we'll soon see an iPad app that's of the same ilk), and printing. There are some workarounds for printing from some applications, but hopefully we'll be able to print from the iWork suite. It just seems really odd to me that you can create and exchange documents so easily yet if you want to print one you have to send it to another machine first.

Does everyone need to rush right out and get one? Not really. But if you have a need for a space friendly device with good battery life that will let you surf the web, do email, and generally entertain you, I can't think of anything better. And heck, even the TSA is getting friendly saying it's not a big enough computer that they want you to take it out of your carry-on bag at the security checkpoint. That's worth something to me, right there.

One hole I hope gets filled is navigation. It should be MUCH easier for someone to build and market a dashboard friendly mount for this device so that the GPS enabled 3G version (coming in about a month) can be used as a navigation device (or the current version with an external GPS). The screen size will be much better than most of the off-the-shelf units, and the fact that it can also be your music player is an added bonus. I don't think it'll be more than a couple months before we see something like this on the market, and likely several somethings like this.

Can it replace a Kindle? Depends. If looking at "computer screens" for long periods doesn't bother your eyes, yes. If, however, you find that "computer screens" bother you and something like the Kindle's special screen doesn't, then no. It's a beautiful screen, but it is still basically "just an LCD." The Kindle is special in this regard, and if you need that particular feature of the Kindle then you need a Kindle. Unfortunately the only way to know if this device will bother you is to spend a few hours reading on one, but supposedly Apple does have a good return policy on in-store purchases. The iBook reader is a free application, and there are even some timeless classics you can download to it for free to give it a try. So you can, in effect, try it out for free to see if it will work for you. They've sold a half million of them in less than a week, so you might know someone who will loan you one, too. Nah, few people are going to let these babies out of their hands for quite some time.

-- Posted from my iPad, mostly

** EDIT: Shoot, I should have tried to put the picture in with the iPad. It's totally possible, and not even that hard. You just switch to your browser, find the picture you want to put in your block, touch and HOLD your finger on it, select "Save" from the menu that pops up. Then you have your image saved in your image library and can select it with the Blogpress app. Dang, should have known it was that easy!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Apple's Fail and Win

First, the win: The App Store. With the App Store, Apple has setup the iPhone and now the iPad to be "game changers." If there's a piece of software that can make the device a winner, someone will likely create it and shove it into the App Store. And that amazing "community" (and it is a community of sorts, thanks to the fact that it's so easy for users to contribute and things to bubble up thanks to reviews and intelligent pricing) is what can totally shape demand for a product.

How did they do it? They created the hardware, then they created an operating system for the hardware along with the Software Development Kit (SDK) that any developer could use to very easily create an application, and then there is the relatively pain-free process of submitting your application to the App Store where Apple will sell it for you and distribute your revenue to you. Yes, I admit that there has been some problems between developers and Apple over problems with the App Store, but you have to admit that on the whole the model has worked very well for both parties. Apple does continue to listen to developers and add facilities developers need to continue to push the envelope, too.

Articles today about the iPad launch are pointing to the fact that a lot of people in line to buy first day iPads are doing so only because they'd "buy anything Apple sells" and thus are just lemmings. I submit that the App Store is mostly to blame for this kind of thinking, though. They know that there already are apps for it and there will be even more apps for it and are counting on those to make the device something they will treasure. You can already stream Netflix to it, watch TV from ABC, read USA Today and NY Times news, and it has complete eBook functionality including an App for those who already have Kindle eBooks. With most of that being completely free. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that they've already got the thing serving some pretty significant markets. It won't just be a success because of some lemmings.

Where does the App Store go next? Only Apple knows. I'm surprised they haven't tried to push it a little more for the Mac platform myself.

Now, the fail: Apple is far too limiting on the hardware integration side. They simply haven't embraced anything resembling an open model for allowing other companies to integrate the iPhone, iPod Touch, and now iPad in with their hardware. The first sign of this was how closed the Bluetooth is on the iPhone. It allows you to connect your iPhone to a Bluetooth headset, but the rest of the Bluetooth API is closed to third party developers. This means no Bluetooth keyboards, no syncing to a computer via Bluetooth, and no talking to a whole host of other Bluetooth devices that were starting to appear on the market. There were many $50 devices out there that were Bluetooth that manufacturers have now made into $150 wifi devices just to talk to the iPhone. This is not a win for consumers, obviously. Bluetooth is a perfect mechanism for a digital camera to get GPS information from your iPhone so it can geotag your photos, for instance. But Apple makes that impossible, even though all the building blocks exist already.

The problem runs much deeper than Bluetooth. Apple very closely licenses its dock connector, so anyone who wants to connect to it must pay Apple and go through a process to validate what they want to do with the device. So far this has been very limited. We've seen alarm clocks and a few basic stereo docks, but little more. Will we see refrigerators let you dock your iPad for easy recipe access and podcast playing? Will we ever see an aftermarket car stereo where the face is just an iPhone dock? Will we ever have the ability to control any aftermarket device via the dock part in a generic form? Ie. RS-232? There are currently a ton of possible industrial uses for the iPhone/Touch/iPad that we can't even try thanks to Apple closing up their serial port. The bigger problem is not the things I have thought of that we're missing, but the things the truly inventive hardware folks might find that would really kick some serious butt. They're not even trying, because they know Apple won't let it happen.

I don't know why Apple doesn't want third parties to let people control their devices with Apple products. Seems to me they've been a perfect mass market device that they'd sell even more of if they would. But for some strange reason they just won't embrace third party hardware like they have third party software. Could it be that they just can't take the step into a realm where they don't (and can't) have the level of control they have now with the App Store? I don't know, but it's pretty maddening to those of us who can see all kinds of awesome uses for these devices only to have an Apple roadblock in the way of making it happen.

Friday, April 2, 2010

March Madness Expansion?

It looks likely that the NCAA will expand the NCAA tournament for men's basketball from 64 teams to 96 teams next season. The reason is simple...added revenue. It will add two days to the tournament, and a total of 32 more games. It will also kill the NIT, it would seem.

This has the support of the coaches. Why? Because most coaches are judged by "getting in the NCAA tournament" or not. It's about job security.

Okay, great. But think about this? There are about 340 division one basketball programs. Now we're going to 96 teams in the tournament. That's nearly one-third of the programs, when before we had less than one-fifth. The significance of just "making" the tournament will be diminished greatly. Will there be any talk of the teams who don't make it? That is the "bubble" we hear so much about now? My prediction is that we'll hear a little about it just before and just after the selection show, but the noise will be a lot less. Why? Because there's a new bubble in town...

The bye. That's right, the bye. The top 32 teams in the tournament (what we currently know as seeds one through eight) will not have to play the first round. Instead, the bottom 64 teams will play one game for the right to play the top 32. Currently, just about the last thing anyone cares about as far as seeding is who are teams 29 through 32 and 33 through 36. Why? Because those are seeds eight and nine, and those two play each other in the first round of a 64 team tournament.

In the new system, however, that won't be the case. Who gets selected as 32 or less versus those just above that cut-off will be the new "bubble" discussion. Why? Because those who aren't in the top 32 not only have to play another game to win the whole thing, they now have to win three games in the first six days of the tournament instead of just two in four days like before to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

That's huge.

It's only going to take a couple years, if that, before people realize just how much lower your statistical and realistic chances are of winning the tournament as the 33rd or higher overall seed (anything 9th to 24th now). Sure, people currently feel like a 9th or higher seed isn't gonna get it done, but the difference now is that it just because EVEN HARDER to do what's already pretty unlikely. So the seeding cut-off will be huge. I predict it will be the new "making the tournament" bar that coaches are currently held to. Which means it just got HARDER for coaches to keep jobs, not easier.

All for money. *sigh*