Nov 26, 2013

Power Bank SoCs

posted by Bryon Moyer

I ask a lot of stupid questions because usually they’re not stupid. Occasionally one is.

OK, maybe not outright stupid, but I certainly felt out of the loop. I was talking with Active-Semi about their new power bank management chips. But I tend to run my phones with minimal bells and whistles on. WiFi is typically off; GPS is often off. Bottom line: the charge on my phone can easily last a day, sometimes two.

So I hope I can be forgiven for not knowing in advance what a “power bank” was. I’ve never had a chance to need one. Apparently I’m not typical: Active- Semi’s Mark Cieri noted that it’s not unusual for smartphones to need a new charge after only 4 hours. Who knew… (Apparently everyone but me!)

Active-Semi has announced two new SoCs for managing these critters. As they describe it, the status quo requires separate components: a power path chip, a linear charger, a buck/boost regulator, and a microcontroller to manage it all.

Their solution is a single chip that integrates all of these capabilities together, including management and regulation. One version delivers 1 A; the other 2.1 A. The result: a noticeably (50%) smaller footprint.

Oh, and significantly less power draw: under 10 µA, vs. 45 - 100 µA for conventional circuits. So the manager won’t be siphoning off too much of the energy it’s supposed to be managing.

You can find out more in their announcement.

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Nov 22, 2013

A Quality Rant

posted by Bryon Moyer

This year I’ve gone through a couple of electronics upgrades: phone and computer. Actually, the phone was supposed to be an upgrade since I wasn’t happy with the prior one. The laptop? Well, my old one was giving out (why is it always the graphics that go first?). So I needed a replacement – a hardware upgrade, not a software upgrade. A new computer with Windows 7 would have been ideal.

Let’s just say that I’ve been disappointed with both purchases. Actually, “disappointed” only works for the phone. Not even Jim Turley’s splutterings about the imbecility of Windows 8 could prepare me for my own immediate splutterings when my new laptop came to life. I won’t launch (much) into the litany of ridiculousness that has assaulted the world in the last release from Redmond. Except to note that, once my blood pressure returned to only 50% above normal, my overall impression crystalized into the following: Windows 8 is pretty much Windows 3.1, only with color by IKEA. (And oooooo, the color changes over time… What, all that work to attract the raver market?)

It’s times like this that I feel like a permanent malcontent. I can’t think of the last time I got an electronic product from any company that delighted me and actually met my expectations and worked as advertised. Am I that hard to please? Am I growing into an old geezer that can’t handle change and just wants to stick with the Old Ways? After some soul-searching, I have narrowed my basic issues down to two. And I offer them up as food for thought.

I’ll readily admit I’m not providing solutions. Because I really don’t know where the fault is, ultimately. Sloppy engineering? Great engineering stymied by poor management? Great management that has its hands tied by money-grubbing shareholders? The tyranny of a race-to-the-bottom market? I’ll leave it to whoever reads this to reflect on their own situation, if it applies. (I honestly am not expecting to change the world here… but someone occasionally needs to call bovine scat…)

1. Only new, useful stuff should require a learning curve. I shouldn’t need a huge learning curve just to get back to what I used to be able to do.

First a clarification: this isn’t about who has the best interface. I don’t even want to go there. This is about when you’ve chosen an interface (Windows or Mac, iPhone or BlackBerry or Android, Microsoft Office) and a new upgrade comes along that you can’t ignore. Do you suddenly have to stop all productivity to re-learn your system?

The whole upgrade-learning-curve question tacitly assumes that you can still do what you used to be able to do. But that may not even be the case: Windows 8 is so dumbed down compared to Windows 7 that useful stuff has just disappeared.

For example, my ability to manage wireless networks, straightforward in Windows 7 for things like deleting networks or changing passwords or setting connection priority, is pretty much zero in Windows 8. I read someplace that it handles things automatically now “like most modern OSes.” (See my next point for how well that worked.)

Major change should come with a benefit. And Microsoft, in particular, seems perennially bent on change “because we thought of a better way to do the things you’ve already been doing.” “Better” typically meaning, “Why use one click when five will do?” Things like the Office ribbon and the Charms Bar are universally panned by users, and the response from Redmond is typically, “No, you can’t change that because we think it’s a better way to do things.” I got a clue for you, folks: no one really cares what you think. Your users are the ones you should be listening to. If they universally say it sucks, then own it: it sucks.

I have spent countless hours just trying to get back to doing what I was able to do easily a couple months ago. That is not me being a stick-in-the-mud; that’s me annoyed that I’m wasting time for no benefit. (Actually, for a negative benefit, since I can now do less than I could a couple months ago. Yes, there are new things in Windows 8. They’re mostly not useful to me.)

Think this is just a Windows problem? The venerable Mr. Turley was describing how iOS 7 had the similar feel of a function-follows-form upgrade, of a win by the art department over the usability group. Visual cues showing where to click disappeared, which is only mildly annoying if you already know where to go and it’s still in the same place, only looking different. But apparently there were bigger changes in, for example, the calendar function. Week view was eliminated, and other functionality changed enough to where he had to spend significant time figuring out what was where.

2. It’s not OK when things don’t work.

We complain and moan about all the bureaucratic engineering rigmarole requried to vet electronics going into cars, airplanes, military equipment, and medical gear. Now… I’m not going to say that all the hassle is useful, but let’s be honest about something: most electronic quality isn’t up to snuff. I’ve purchased consumer products from Dell, Apple, Gateway, Sony, Lenovo, Motorola, Blackberry, to name a few… and all of them have had problems, many that couldn’t be addressed. “Sorry, dude, don’t know what’s wrong. That’s just the way it is.” Or, “You’ll have to send it in for several weeks so we can check it out. No, we don’t offer loaners; you’ll have to take a nice long unpaid vacation.”

Let’s be clear on one thing: these aren’t toys for me. They’re how I make my living. They’re tools, and I need my tools to work properly. We all know the life-lesson about kids buying cheapo toys and having them break within an hour. I no longer need to repeat that lesson. And I haven’t met any engineering colleagues that aspire to making cheapo toys that break in an hour. Even worse are toys that are delivered broken.

Let’s take the wireless feature I described above. I’m fine with things like that working automatically – if they actually work. Problem is, all too often they don’t. Even some of the wireless network stuff I should be able to do doesn’t seem to work. Yes, there will be a call into Technical Support. (I absolutely love how, when you can’t connect to the internet and you click the “figure out why” link, the first thing Windows now says is, more or less, “Hey, you’re not connected to the internet! How can you expect us to help you connect to the internet if you’re not connected to the internet?!” Further down, you find the actually-useful troubleshooters – that don’t actually seem to work.)

My last computer had a docking station with USB functionality that never worked. My last phone supposedly could tell when it was in your pocket so you wouldn’t pocket dial; never worked. Years ago I had a Mac that was malfunctioning so inexplicably that an expert friend from Apple came over and tinkered with it – to no avail. My original BlackBerry developed a trackball problem – it was replaced and the new one was fine (there are some successes).

And it’s harder to figure out if things can be fixed. More and more, technical support is being offloaded onto “the community.” The community being, initially, those amazing people with the time, energy, and knowledge to figure this stuff out on their own and save the rest of us via the forums. My current way of learning Windows 8? Google the thing I used to be able to do easily in order to see what the forums say is the new, unobvious way to do it now. Seriously. Jim says he did the same for iOS 7. To be clear, there is still some good technical support out there, but it’s getting scarce.

But you also hear excuses like, “Hey, this stuff is complicated.” Yeah, it is. Does that mean it’s OK if complicated things only partly work? Cars are complicated too, and increasingly so, but that’s no excuse at 80 mph. And it’s particularly no excuse for things that used to work. I still scratch my head at how difficult it seems to be to get calendar synchronization right (not the connection part, but the fundamental calendar part). Blackberry used to do it perfectly, but they seem to have lost the recipe. How many decades have we been synching calendars? Yes, it’s complex. But we used to do it just fine, so that’s no longer an acceptable excuse.

The other thing you hear is, “Sorry, good support is expensive; we have to push it to the community.” And my response to that is, if you can’t take the heat, then stay out of the kitchen. Either make stuff that doesn’t need support or provide support. I get tired of feeling like I’ve spent good money on a gadget that does only 90% of what it’s supposed to do. What, 90% should be acceptable? Sorry. Call me old-fashioned, but if it doesn’t work as advertised, it’s not OK.

It seems like we give ourselves a pass because, hey, we’re just trying to make money, and we can’t if we do everything right. But we expect, for example, our cars and refrigerators and commercial HVAC systems to work 100%. Not 95%. (Except, notably, for the electronics…) If something isn’t working during the warranty period, we expect to be able to have it made right. With everything else in our world, we hold up a high expectation for things to work.

Shouldn’t we do that for our electronics too?

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Nov 21, 2013

Touchscreen Response

posted by Bryon Moyer

My whimsical piece regarding an airplane touchscreen caught the eye of Touch International. They make touchscreens for airplanes and cars and other high-rel applications; they’ve been doing this for a long time. (I honestly don’t know if they made the screen I was whacking on.)

We met at the Interactive Technology Summit (erstwhile Touch Gesture Motion). It was interesting to contrast our discussion with some of the other things that I was hearing at the show. Touch Int’l makes all their own touchscreens, but they don’t lead the industry in R&D; to use CEO Michael Woolstrum’s phrase, they’re more about “applied science,” using established technologies in custom applications at moderate volumes.

And yet, while folks in the conference presentations talk about someday being able to do curved touchscreens, apparently Touch Int’l has been doing them since the 80s. To be clear, that’s “1D” curved, such as might come off of a roll. 2D curved, which you could fit over a spheroidal sort of shape, is coming, but isn’t here yet. For Touch Int’l or anyone else.

We also discussed the implications of touchscreens in some of the applications they address. Cars, for instance, presumably in an attempt to attract people with pseudo-whiz-bang cool-looking technology, have dropped all the easy-to-use knobs we (or our forebears) used to use intuitively. Instead, we’re faced with impenetrable GUIs that we must learn anew for each car, taking valuable time away from minor things like looking at the road.

I asked what the benefit of that really was (and, to be clear, this is pre-office-and-hometheater-in-the-car center stack), and apparently electronics are more reliable. I cocked my head a bit at that: phones used to be robust (you know, the old black Ma Bell ones that you could drop with impunity?) and they advertised that fact. Until they went more electronic. (I actually had a phone store salesman specifically say that the vaunted reliability no longer applied to new phones… this in the 80s.) And I owned a Mercedes at one point that seemed to need a lot of work. I talked to another Mercedes owner who crowed about the reliability. When I asked further, he clarified: the old ones were reliable; the newer ones with electronics were not. And I’ve never owned a car where the (now electronic) radio wasn’t the first thing to fail.

So hearing that electronic versions are more robust than the mechanical ones surprised me. I just assumed they were cheaper or looked cool or something… Mr. Woolstrum did agree that they can be confusing to use. In fact, he proposed a compromise that he thought optimal: putting mechanical controls over a touchscreen. That combines the ease-of-use and familiarity of knobs and such over a touchscreen that actually does the work. Interesting idea.

So next time I’m banging away at a touchscreen in a car or in a plane, I’ll have a name and a face to associate with it. And they’ll probably wonder whether that’s a good thing…

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