Hardware Review

Hardware Review: Fossil Smartwatch HR

I haven’t reviewed any hardware in quite a few years now, so I thought it would be a good thing to fit in this new “season” of blogs following my pause. It also has some significance for me, because what I’m going to review is an accessory I needed to replace because of the original lockdown. But let’s me start from the beginning.

Why Do I Wear A Smartwatch

You may remember that many years ago, I started wearing a smartwatch, because my employer of the time (Google) gave us employee one for Christmas. My guess at the time is that this watch was quite the flop, being a first generation Android Wear (now WearOS) without a button (and thus making it incompatible with the soon-after new version of the operating system).

I actually got used to the idea of having a smartwatch, particularly to be able to enjoy the company of friends without checking my phone every time a new notification arrived — a quick glance to my wrist would tell me if the notification was important or not, which is really all I needed. It might sound strange, but I found that adding a notification display meant I was paying more attention to what was going on around me.

I didn’t really care much for the step counter functionality (nice, but not something I usually bother with), and it didn’t have heart rate monitoring. While it did have a few touch-screen features, most of the stuff I tried was not going to make or break my day. The “Okay Google” integration would be neat, if my accent was more compatible with the voice recognition, although I guess I did use it a few times as a timer while cooking, including at least once stopping the timer with my nose (because my hands were dirty).

What was clear to me very early on, though, was that the biggest annoyance with the LG Smart Watch was the fact that it was a device built to look and feel vaguely by a watch, but manufactured by a company that hadn’t made watches before (at least, not good ones). The original rubbery strap was making my wrist sweat, and it kept catching on my hair. So I gave in, and a few weeks after using the watch, I went to a jeweler in Dublin to buy a new (leather) strap. Quality wasn’t great but it was definitely a big improvement.

Originally at the office I’d been discussing getting a metal strap instead, one of those closed loops. But beside the practicality of charging the device by sandwiching the charger between the body and the strap, we heard reports from others who attempted it that it would mess with the Bluetooth reception, and thus the battery life.

I eventually bought not one, but two separate straps from Filson, one tan and one black, both leather, in separate occasion: the first time, because the original strap I got in Dublin was falling apart already, and I nearly lost my watch, and the second because I was going to be at a wedding, and the tan watch strap didn’t fit with the gray suit I was going to wear.

Thankfully, the watch used the “standard” 22mm strap size, so it was very easy to change the strap as needed. The first time I actually asked the store to change it for me, but then they also showed me how to do it myself (the Filson straps come with the tool needed to un-do the latches.)

My Second Smartwatch

Eventually, my LG Smart Watch stopped charging. It was due to happen, because people had been reporting bad oxidation on the contacts for weeks by then, but I guess it was aggravated by my stay in Singapore, where it was horribly humid — it was May, during the first SREcon Asia.

At that point, I knew that Fossil, who have been making watches for many, many years, had been selling WearOS smartwatches. I actually had been looking at them in London, together with friends, a few months before, and I knew that they were about to release a new generation that would not have the “flat tire” look into them. I didn’t care about the look — but I cared about the fact that, with the new generation about to be released, the older one would be discounted.

So for lunch break between talks, I organized a lunch with colleagues at a close-by shopping centre, that happened to have a Fossil store, and bought myself a Fossil Smartwatch: Marshall Q Gen 2, this time with a steel metal strap. I really liked the style of it (Fossil being a watch manufacturer who happened to make smartwatches rather than the other way around, made all the difference). And it served me well for just under three years.

Over those three years, I have also rotated the strap — the Fossil Smartwatch Gen 2 also had the same 22mm pitch as the LG one, so from time to time I would replace the steel strap with one of the Filson leather ones – depending on where I was going, with who, and wearing what. Yes it’s the kind of accessory that you end up actually enjoy matching around.

In addition to the already mentioned notification use, I have used the Dexcom watchface back when I tried out the G6, which was interesting, but not exactly my idea of friendliness. I also had a few different apps for payment with QR codes (if I’m not mistaken the only one that was worth its salt was Caffé Nero), and I have used it once or twice to board a Delta flight (I have boarded many Delta flights, don’t ask.) But those have always been more gimmicks than practical options.

Unfortunately, back when the first lockdown started, I made the mistake of leaving my watch to charge on the side of my bed… for weeks. Not sure if it was the lack of charging protection, or overheating, or something else, but it turned out that, at first, I started seeing a black spot in the middle of the display, and eventually, when I actually picked up the watch to wear it, I found that the top display was unseated from its place, and the Lithium battery looked very puffed up. Oops!

So basically, I have not had a smartwatch on my wrist since the beginning of the lockdown. Which was alright when spending all the time at home, but it started being inconvenient as we got our vaccine and started taking the first few tentative steps out of the flat into the scary outside.

A New Smartwatch

Of course my first thought was to go for a new Fossil Gen5E with Wear OS, which added NFC support, and even the ability to get an eSIM to connect it directly to LTE — although the latter is only available with Vodafone at the time I looked, and given they’re reintroducing European roaming fees, I’ve got zero intention to use their services.

But I also noted that Fossil sells not one, but two variants of “hybrid” smartwatches: one of them is pretty much identical to a classical watch, but includes a way to receive signals from your phone that tells it you’ve got notifications or other similar details, which didn’t sound like my cup of tea — the other was a lot more inviting: instead of a touchscreen LCD, the Smartwatch HR comes with a tinted eink screen (to match the colours of the chosen style) behind two “classic” watch hands.

Unlike the non-HR version, the hands are most definitely not mechanical, since they are made to “dance around” when you flick your wrist, and move away when you’re using the eink screen to give you as much visibility as possible. The screen itself includes a “rest position” of four configurable “complications” (although the default is what I kept: current weather, heart rate, step counter, and date), and can be set to display the notifications from your phone.

Basically, given the current times, this is all I need from a watch: time, notifications, weather, and I’ll take step counter and heart rate just for a laugh. Well, no, actually I’m happy about the step counter because of Pokémon Go Adventure Sync, but that’s another story.

In exchange for not having voice commands, touchscreen display, and all those kind of things, what I win is not having to charge my watch every night: the battery is declared to last some twelve days, and I can confirm it lasts more than a week. This is possibly less of an issue now that we’re in lockdown, but knowing that I could go for a weekend with my wife somewhere and not curse myself for not having taken the charger of the watch is actually a much relaxing thought.

The watch itself is also much lighter to keep on the wrist, to be honest. I’m actually wearing it in the house, not just out and about, and I barely notice it. I have not slept wearing it, though it does have sleep tracking, supposedly, but that’s not something I ever did, not with any watch — putting the watch on every morning is part of a ritual for me. I think even getting used to sleep with the wedding band felt awkward at first.

Of all the features, probably the most important for me is the ability to receive notifications, as I said before: it allows me an at-a-glance view of what’s going on, which makes the difference between me ignoring something, or asking the person I’m with for a moment to look at something. I was originally skeptical about the Fossil HR, because some of the reviews insisted that it only supported notifications from a handful of apps — either this is the case for iOS only, or it’s a limitation of an older app version: on my Android phone, I could configure whichever app I wanted to receive notifications from.

The main notifications I need, like most other people, are instant messaging apps — because we’re back in the same situation we were when Trillian was useful, except that we can’t have it. In this, the HR performs very well, I have no problem seeing the full message in notifications from either WhatsApp, Viber, or Telegram. Email also works great, with Fastmail showing the subject and sender with no issue.

Possibly secondary in choice, but admittedly very much important, are the Libre 2 notifications. With the new sensors that Abbott eventually rolled out to the UK, a Bluetooth push is sent to the phone when reaching a defined threshold (low- or high-blood sugar alert — in my case the risk is mostly with lows, so I set it only to buzz me for that one). Receiving the notification on my watch could easily be a lifesaver, as it means I can notice it even when I might be feeling too distracted to take my phone out.

The only downside is that when the text of a notification is changed, the watch will buzz out again. This is great if you have a notification with a counter of things that you need to keep in mind, but not so great for the two hours when your sensor is about to expire or starting up: the app shows a notification with the countdown of minutes remaining in either situation, and that means every minute the watch buzzes. Quite annoying, and I wish I could have a reliable way to shut up those notifications — unfortunately, the Fossil app only allows me to select which apps, and not which notification class (quite understandable there).

Also worth noting one caveat: unlike the Gen2 Marshall Q, leaving the watch to charge does not disable notifications. This is great if you really need it to tell you something important, like a sugar low… less great if your local Pokémon Go group is very active in the early morning and you like to sleep in.

In addition to all of this, the Smartwatch HR includes media controls (haven’t tried them), and some type of fitness routine tracking. This only triggered once by mistake while we were walking back from the local park after playing Pokémon. I m not really a fit person.

What Could Change My Mind

As I said above, right now this watch is pretty much all I need for myself. But that might indeed change in the future — beside not flying at all during the pandemic, I have overall stopped traveling as often as I used to – and in part that’s because I’m no longer longing to escape Dublin at any chance – so features such as boarding passes are not that compelling to me. On the other hand, if vaccination certificates become more acceptable to check at venues, then it might be interesting to have something able to show them straight on my wrist.

Similarly, while NFC-based payments are an interesting novelty, using the phone for those is not particularly cumbersome. But maybe I could see a point if I could scan my Libre sensor with my watch — although that would only work on alternating fortnights as I wouldn’t be able to easily scan a sensor on my left arm with the watch. So probably that wouldn’t be much of an interest to me.

If I did move to Dexcom or similar CGM setups, or if Libre were to provide real-time readings over Bluetooth, and they did support WearOS (which to be honest sounds like they would, Dexcom does already and it would be silly to miss that), it would definitely be more useful to see the graph of the last few hours. So that would definitely be a consideration.

I have over time done a number of things directly from my watch without having to look for the phone, particularly when it came to quickly answer a message or turned on/off a light or similar. While most of these are only feasible with a “full” smartwatch, I don’t think any of those are that much important to me.

While the LTE model did pique my inner geek, I realized I would have pretty much no use for it, except for avoiding taking my phone with me in some circumstances. This would be a much more useful proposal if it wasn’t that my phone is also my main glucometer nowadays, which means it’s always with me and always charged. And also, I play Pokémon Go, so you’d be hard pressed to find me without a phone at hand when I’m out and about — a hundo could just be around the corner!

Hardware Review: ELECOM DEFT Trackball

I know that by this point it feels like I’m collecting half-done reverse engineering projects, but sometimes you need some time off from one project to figure out how another is going to behave, so I have temporarily shelved my Accu-Chek Mobile and instead took a day to look at a different problem altogether.

I like trackballs, and with exception of gaming purposes, I consider them superior to mice: no cables that get tangled, no hands to move around the desk, much less space needed to keep clear, and so on. On laptops I prefer TrackPoint™ Style Pointers, which are rare to find, but on desktop I am a happy user of trackballs. Unfortunately my happiness has been having trouble as of late, because finding good trackballs is getting harder. My favourite device would still be Logitech’s Cordless Optical Trackman, but it was discontinued years ago, and it’s effectively impossible to find to buy. Amazon has second-hand listings for hundreds of dollars! I’m still kicking myself in the face for having dropped mine on the floor (literally) while I packed to move to Dublin, completely destroying it.

The new Logitech offerings appear to be all in the realm of thumb-operated “portable” trackballs, such as the M570, which I have and don’t particularly like. An alternative manufacturer that is easy to find both online and in store is Kensington, and I do indeed own an Orbit with the scroll ring, but it’s in my opinion too avant-garde and inconvenient. So I have been mostly unhappy.

But last year a colleague, also a trackball user, suggested me to look into the ELECOM DEFT Trackball (also available wired).

ELECOM, for those who may not be familiar with it, is a Japanese hardware company, that would sell everything from input devices to ultra flat network cables. If you have not been to Japan, it may be interesting to know that there is effectively a parallel world of hardware devices that you would not find in Europe or the USA, which makes a visit to Yodobashi Camera a must-see for every self-respecting geek.

I got the DEFT last year, and loved it. I’ve been using it at work all the time, because that’s where I mostly use a non-gaming input device anyway, but recently I started working from home a bit more often (it’s a long story) and got myself a proper setup for it, with a monitor, keyboard and, for a while, the M570 I noted above. I decided then to get myself two more of the DEFT, one to use with my work from home setup, and the other to use with my personal laptop while I work on reverse engineering.

Note here: I made a huge mistake. In both cases I ordered them from eBay directly from Japan, so I had to deal with the boring customs and VAT modules on my end. Which is not terrible, since the An Post depot is about ten minutes away from my apartment and my office, but it’s still less nice than just receiving the package directly. The second order, I ended up receiving two “Certified Frustration Free” packages, so I checked and indeed these devices are available on Amazon Japan. As I found out a few weeks ago for a completely different product, there is a feature called AmazonGlobal, which is not available for all products but would have been for these. With AmazonGlobal, the customs and VAT charges are taken care by Amazon, so there is no need for me to go out of my way and pay cash to An Post. And as it happens, if you don’t want to sign up for an account with Amazon Japan (which somehow is not federated to the others), you can just look for the same product on the USA version of Amazon, and AmazonGlobal applies just the same.

The trackball has a forefinger-operated ball (although ELECOM also makes a thumb-operated trackball), the usual left/middle/right buttons, a scroll wheel that “tilts” (badly) horizontally, and three function buttons at the top of the mouse (which I’ll go back to later). It also has two switches, one on the side, that has a red or blue area showing depending on how you pull it, and one on the bottom that is marked with the power symbol, H and L. Unfortunately, the manual leaflet that comes with the device is all in Japanese, which meant I had to get the help of Google Translate with my phone’s camera.

The switch on the side selects the DPI of the ball tracking (750 for blue, 1500 for red), while the one at the bottom appear to be a “power-assist” for the ball — it warns that the H version will use more battery.

As I said before, the trackball has three function buttons (marked Fn1, Fn2, Fn3) on the top. These are, for what I could tell, configurable through the Windows and Mac application, and they were indeed not seen by Linux at all, neither through xev nor through evtest. So I set myself up to reverse whichever protocol they used to configure this — I expected something similar to the Anker/Holtek gaming mouse I’m also working on, where the software programs the special event ID in the device directly.

The software can be downloaded on ELECOM’s website, although the whole page is in Japanese. On the other hand, the software itself is (badly) translated to English, so fewer yaks to shave there. Unfortunately when I tried using the app with the USB sniffer open… I could find nothing whatsoever. Turns out the app is actually handling all of that in software, rather than programming the hardware. So why did it not work on Linux? Well, I think that may be the topic for another post, since it turned out to require a kernel patch (which I sent, but can’t currently quite find it in the archives. I think that writing a blog post about it is going to be fairly useful, given that I had to assemble documentation that I found on at least a half dozen different sites.

Other things that may be relevant to know about the ELECOM is that somehow the 2.4GHz connection is sometimes a bit unstable. At the office, I cannot connect the receiver on the USB behind the monitor, because otherwise it skips beats. At home instead I have to put it there, because if I try to connect it directly to the Anker USB-C adapter I use with my Chromebook, the same problem happens. Ironically, the Microsoft receiver has the opposite problem: if I connect it behind the monitor at home, the keyboard sometimes get stuck repeating the same key over and over again. But again, that’s a topic for another time.

Hardware review: comparison of Bose QC15 and QC20

As I wrote in On the conference circuit I have been traveling a whole lot in the past couple of years, even though I used to be terrified of the idea. Because of that, I also tried looking for every escape hatch from all the bothersome parts of traveling that I could get to, within my budget — which does mean I don’t usually travel business class, though sometimes I do.

One of the earliest things I wanted to address was the headache caused by a long-haul flight. Part of the reason for the headache is directly the hum of the engines, but even more so than that, the problem was due to me cranking the volume up on audiobooks or podcasts I listened to, just to make sure I could hear them through said hum. The obvious answer was to be found in noise-cancelling headphones, so on my birthday, on a trip to Las Vegas, I bought myself a pair of Bose QC15 (no longer manufactured.)

This was a definite lifesaviour for me, particularly as the number of flights I took afterwards kept increasing steadily, and I found in these headphones the only way to sleep on planes. I really wish I had these when I was still living in Italy, particularly as all repeating noises, including lawnmowers and safety warning alarms can be cancelled very nicely — and these were the primary complaints I had when living back there, particularly during the summer.

Unfortunately, as everything in life, these were not perfect, and in particular they relied on making a good seal around your ears, which is perfectly feasible… unless you wear glasses. Indeed depending on the model of glasses I wore, the seal would be from imperfect to completely missing. This became more of an issue when I started flying Dublin to San Francisco non-stop, as that’s a quite long flight enough.

A second problem became more apparent as I managed to get a few more business class trips (either through bids for upgrades, upgrades with miles, or just random stroke of luck on the fare when booking.) When I sleep I tend to turn my head to the side, even more so in a plane because of lights usually being visible in the aisle. When that happens, if the earphone ends up touching the seat, the noise-cancelling gets completely thrown off by the vibration, and stops working altogether.

So last year I decided it was a good time to get a new pair, this time as in-ear earphones, Bose QC20, and I found the improvement worthwhile (of course, it’s still a matter of budget.)

While the actual noise-cancelling is stronger on the QC15 with a good seal (as in, when I’m not wearing glasses), the QC20 provide a better result in a plane when wearing glasses. This makes them much more suitable for the usage pattern I have, but I guess for those who don’t need to wear glasses, and who don’t travel as much, the QC25 might still be a better option.

Compared to the ‘15, the ‘20 have the drawback of requiring charging the battery, which luckily has a micro-B USB connector, so does not require any special cable. My previous pair is powered by a simple AAA battery, so I just kept one or two spares in the headphones’ case. This was also convenient because that is the same type of batteries that my glucometer uses. On the other hand, the ‘20s work fine even without being powered, though without the noise cancelling, of course.

Because of the nature of the earphones, they are also much more practical to carry: the case is many times smaller and easily fit in my pocket, while the previous one would stay in my backpack until I got to the plane. They also are more discreet (even with the bright aqua-colored stripe mine have), which means I have less refrain on using them on the street here in Dublin (I have heard stories about fancy headphones on the street here, but that’s probably paranoia.)

If you wonder why I use these on the street, while they don’t do much good to get rid of the cars themselves, they do take care of two major problems when trying to listen to Audiobooks while walking around the city: the wind (in the winter it can be quite nasty and noisy), and the wheels on the asphalt. Probably due to differences in amounts of rain, I can listen to audiobooks on normal earphones in California, but not so much over here. And I’d rather not crank up the volume on the earphones on the road, as it would cover important safety noises, such as the car trying to run you over.

An interesting factoid of using noise-cancelling headphones during flights can be added to the list of non-directly-logical actions while traveling. If you read the Wikipedia page I linked earlier on, you can read

In the aviation environment, noise-cancelling headphones increase the signal-to-noise ratio significantly more than passive noise attenuating headphones or no headphones, making hearing important information such as safety announcements easier.

In reality, due to the practical difficulty for the cabin crew to tell what kind of headphones you’re wearing (although you’d expect the QC15 to be a very common sight nowadays), in many flights I’ve been asked to take the headphones away during the security demonstration. In case of Aer Lingus (which is, by virtue of being based in Dublin, my airline of choice at least for “local” European flights), they allow you to keep “earbuds type headphones” on, which is another good reason for me to use the ‘20. Other airlines frown upon those as well.

The unfortunate bit is that Bose now requires you to choose your allegiance upfront. QC15 came with a generic cable without controls, and a cable with controls for Apple devices, while allowing you to buy the microphone and controls version for “Samsung” (really, Android), allowing you to pick the right control based on the device. QC20 and QC25 only have one cable each and you need to choose which ones to get the moment you buy them. I have the Android version, even though I also own an iPod Touch.

Hardware review: Asus WL-300NUL

Some people probably still remember that I used to have an absolute fear of flying and planes altogether. To the point that I have avoided going to the on-site interview of the company I’m now (years later) working for, because it would have taken place in California and I got scared. While I still do not like to travel, I’ve been traveling quite a bit in the past few years, not only back and forth between Venice and Los Angeles, but also within Europe and within other cities in the USA both last year and this.

In particular, TripIt is telling me I’m going to be away from home at least 41 days this year (and this is without including trips that are not scheduled yet, such as a visit back in Italy, and another trip to the United States in November). And most of them are not for personal reason (although some are, luckily). With all of this going on, I’ve started looking at any reasonably cheap option for me to reduce the pains of traveling.

One of these options came to me through a few colleagues, who presented me the Asus WL-330NUL — a tiny wireless router, the almost exact size of the Ethernet adapter that was bundled with my laptop, that provides you with your own, personal WiFi network, routed to another, less-private network, either wireless or wired. An absolute must if you spend a considerable amount of time in hotels.

First of all, the device itself is tiny, as I said it’s almost the exact size of my Ethernet adapter and it can replace it 100%. Indeed, the device has four interfaces (although not the proper term): USB (gadget), Ethernet and two wireless radios; the USB connection is used both for host connectivity and for power: if you connect the router to your computer via USB, it’ll present itself as a cdc_ether device, which Linux supports full well as if it was a standard Ethernet port — if possible, it’s better supported than some of the USB Ethernet adapters out there in the wild.

Once your computer sees the connection via Ethernet, the device itself can be configured to either use a wired or wireless upstream connection — if you choose to use a wired network, which is what I do, as I’ll explain in a moment, then this by itself is going to be already a replacement of the ethernet adapter; indeed at first the device will configure itself to be a simple bridge between USB and Ethernet, although that’s not what I use it for.

Once you configured the wired or wireless upstream connection, you can focus on setting up your own private WiFi network: the second radio can broadcast your own SSID and handle your own 802.11n network, protected with WPA for instance. Since you have a stable SSID/key combination, once you turn the device on, all your gadgets will connect to that network, without requiring manual, device-by-device, configuration.

Even better, since you’re now behind a router, for what the hotel or other provider is concerned, you have a single device: you consume a single IP and a single connection. For networks where you have to login separately for each device every 24 hours (or even every reconnection), this also means you only have to do it from one device, where it’s handy, and everything else will follow.

As I said above, my suggested approach is to always use the wired network if the hotel makes it available (most of the non-economy hotels do). The reason why I’m saying this is that it’s easy to misread the security implications of a device like this. While it is true that it can create your own private WiFi to then route to the hotel wireless, when you do so you add nothing to security, even if your WiFi is WPA2. The reason is simple: the public wireless network from the hotel is still completely unencrypted, so anybody eavesdropping can see what you’re doing, unless you’re using encrypted websites and even then part of your traffic can be inspected, such as which websites you’re consulting. If, on the other hand, you use the wired network, while not totally secure (the hotel and the provider can still see the non-encrypted connections), you’re still stopping a good bunch of people from gathering your data.

Finally, there is one more feature that is important if you travel a lot among hotels of respectable size: all of them use multiple access points for their WiFi networks, even though they broadcast the same SSID (and sometimes they don’t); these access point do not allow you to roam data across them, so if you have two devices, say a Nexus 7 and a Chromecast that you bring with you, they may not be able to talk to each other without a device like this, as they may end up on different APs, and unable to “see” each other on the network, or at least not consistently enough to stream from one to the other. Since with this device you can just connect all the gadgets at the same network and access point, your problem is then solved.

I’ve been using the device for ten days now on two hotels and two airports, and it’s definitely handy. I can’t complain about the range either: I’m now in Pittsburgh’s Bakery Square at the SpringHill Suites and my phone connected fine to it across the square in the Coffee Tree Roaster shop. Oh yeah and my room faces away from the square too.

Also, the power supply (by Asus!) that I bought last year (the original US one that I got with it just died on my, so I bought a different one) comes with a USB charging port by itself, which means I can just WiFi from my laptop even with a single power socket, freeing up the USB port (I only have two and one I use for my smartcard reader). I guess I could probably run this off my Anker battery but I have not tried that yet, as I somehow doubt that the airlines would be okay with me broadcasting my own WiFi on their planes. In any case, this is now part of my essential tools.