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2018 NaNoWriMo Progress

Silver Dragon's NaNoWriMo Progress

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MacOS v. Bluetooth Headsets—How to Get Good Mac Sound Output #amwriting

I praised my Razer Hammerhead BT headset last week for its superb sound output from my Mac. I’d like to say it was easy—but I had to do some digging to make it so.

Before anything, in order for great, lag-free sound to come out of your Mac via Bluetooth, your Mac must support Bluetooth 4.0 or greater, and your BT headset must also support it. To find out if your Mac supports this BT version, select About This Mac from the Apple menu, then click on the System Report… button near the bottom of the window that results.

Checking BT Compatibility

Click on Bluetooth in the System Information window that opens. You’re looking for

  • Bluetooth Low Energy Supported: Yes
  • HCI Version: 4.0 (0x6) (or higher)
  • LMP Version: 4.0 (0x6) (or higher)

Alternatively, you could check the Bluetooth version by using Mactracker, a free utility available on the Mac App Store, which holds the specifications of every Apple device ever built. Ever.

Your BT headset’s box or its website should clearly state which version of BT it supports. If it doesn’t support 4.0 or better, none of the rest of the info in this article will work.

Checking Codec1 Compatibility

If your Mac supports BT 4.0 and you have a MacOS released since 2015, you’re good on the Mac side. Your Mac supports both the aptX and the AAC codecs, so if your headset has either, you’re in business.

If your BT headset not only supports BT 4.0+ but also supports the aptX codec, you’re in great shape! Most headset manufacturers brag about aptX if they’ve got it, so check the manufacturer’s website to find out. Failing aptX, check whether the headset supports Apple’s AAC codec (it almost certainly does if advertised as usable with iOS.) AAC won’t get you quite as good sound as aptX, but many people can’t hear the difference.

Persuading Your Mac to Play Nice

So now, you know that your BT headset and your Mac can talk to each other fast enough and well enough to get beautiful sound. What’s the problem?

Sometimes, the Mac refuses to use higher bandwidth codecs, even though they’re available on both the Mac and the BT headset. Why, no one seems to know, least of all Apple. But you can work around this with a developer utility called Bluetooth Explorer, which you can get via a link in this article by John H. Darko. Mr Darko’s article also explains how to force use of aptX or AAC by using Bluetooth Explorer once you’ve got it.

I did this, but my MacBook Air was still downgrading to the horrid SCO codec. Now what?

After a good deal of Internet research, I found that the problem lies in Apple Dictation. Often, when you connect a BT headset, MacOS will automatically assume that you want to use the headset microphone for dictation. This is not a bad assumption in and of itself, but when MacOS selects a BT headset for dictation, it will automatically downgrade the BT codec, whether you’re actually using dictation right now or not. (You could use dictation, any time now, is its feeble mechanical rationale, so it had better be prepared…)

One solution is to simply turn off dictation on your Mac. If you’re a writer, though, this may not be practical. An alternative solution is to leave the internal microphone selected for dictation, and manually switch to your BT headset mic if needed. Here’s how to implement either possibility.

Mac Dictation can sabotage your headset sound

  • Open System Preferences
  • Click on the Keyboard panel
  • Click on the Dictation tab
  • Click the “Off” radio button to turn off dictation completely
  • OR—from the drop-down menu beneath the microphone icon, choose “Internal microphone.” (Do not choose Automatic; that’s what’s causing the problem.) The machine may whine2 about how this won’t give you best results. Ignore it.

Now music should pour forth from your Mac and sound beautiful on your BT headset. If you should decide that you want to dictate some text and use your BT headset to do it, go back to System Preferences and manually change dictation input to your BT headset. The codec will downgrade but you won’t care because you’ll be dictating and you can’t listen to music at the same time anyway. Manually change dictation input back to Internal Microphone when you want to listen to music again.

Tooth Fairy makes controlling your mic more convenient.

Another possibility: a little utility available on the Mac App Store, called Tooth Fairy, $2.99 USD. It will let you put an icon in your menubar for your headset (and also display its battery status). You can connect and disconnect the headset by clicking on the icon. If you right-click, you can access Tooth Fairy preferences—which let you disable the headset mic, by means of its Advanced… settings. Thus you avoid needing to dig deep into the System Preferences; leave them as they are, and just turn the mic on or off as needed from the Tooth Fairy icon.


  1. What’s a codec? “Codec” is short for COde/DECode. A codec is simply a set of rules for compressing your sound before the Mac sends it, and then decompressing it on your headset before it’s played. The more information the codec can send and/or receive in a given amount of time, the better the sound on your headset. aptX is excellent, AAC is not bad, SBC stinks, and SCO is monaural transmission suitable only for voice calls. 
  2. Display a yellow triangle warning message. 

Razer Hammerhead BT Headset Review #amwriting

I can’t imagine trying to get heavy writing done without a headset of some kind. I use headsets as distraction filters, hearing protectors, telephone speaking/listening devices, and occasional dictation devices. Sometimes I even use them to listen to music. I’ve reported before on how well gaming equipment suits my writing needs (The Gaming—Writing—Dictation Connection, Long, Cool Monitor). This little lurid-green-and-black beauty is my latest acquisition:

The Razer Hammerhead BT Headset

Razer Hammerhead BT Headset, $99.00 MSRP

My Summary:

Overall *****
Noise Isolation ****
Sound *****
Microphone ***
Setup ****
Comfort *****
Ease of Use ****
The (Really) Good:
  • The Razer Hammerhead BT has great sound by my standards.
    • I often attend live classical music concerts, so while I don’t insist on audiophile quality sound, I don’t care for artificially inflated bass either. This headset inflates the bass, but not enough to annoy; it only slightly inflates bass past compensating for the usual feeble bass of in-ear headsets. Otherwise, frequency response sounds pretty darn flat, which suits.
    • It sounds as good as my wired Audio-Technica ATH-ANC33iS headset with my iOS devices. The problems reported with BT headsets (lag, poor sound quality compared to wired) are not present.
    • It produces the best darn sound I’ve ever gotten out of my Mac. I’ve made the aptX codec active (see this article by John H. Darko for how) and the sparkling highs rival those of my old component stereo system. But even before I activated aptX it did as well as my A-T.
  • It does a similar job of noise isolation compared to my Audio-Technica headset. The Razer eliminates more high-pitched noise; the A-T is better on the droning low-pitched stuff (due to active noise cancellation.) (N.B. All comparisons of noise isolation were done with Comply foam eartips on each headset.)
  • The inline control unit contains the microphone, as customary. The unit is larger than usual, and easy to use. The microphone hangs naturally pointed at the user’s face. The controls works well with iOS and with MacOS.
  • It exceeds its advertised battery life of eight hours.
  • The Razer has a two year warranty! Even if there are durability issues I should be covered.
  • The flat ribbon wired connections among the components should be sturdier than the round wired connectors of my A-T.
  • Again, the machined aluminium earbud bodies should be sturdier than those made of plastic.
The Indifferent:
  • The Razer microphone. It performs well enough, but it’s neither particularly well suited nor poorly suited to dictation in noisy environments. It does OK for dictation in quiet environments. People I’ve been on voice calls with report decent call quality. I need not grab it and hold it in front of my mouth in order to be understood, as I did the A-T microphone. In short, it works well but not outstandingly so.
  • The magnetic shirt clip works well for thin fabric, but its grip is problematic on anything thicker than a t-shirt.
  • The silicone eartips are decent quality. Note that the double-flange eartips are only provided in size medium. If you have large or small ear canals, you won’t get the extra noise isolation of double-flanges with the provided eartips. (This doesn’t bother me as I replace manufacturer’s eartips with Comply foam eartips anyway.)
The Quirky:
  • Not only does the Hammerhead BT have two-tone green and black cables but also the earbuds’ logos slowly pulse with lurid green light (“breathing”) while in use. This, ah, feature can’t be turned off directly, from iOS, or from Mac. It might be controllable from Android or Windows—I have no way to check.
  • The knurled grips on the earbuds irritate some users’ ears, but I haven’t noticed any problem.
  • The provided carry case is huge for the size of the headset. Yes, it has a nice custom-moulded interior; nonetheless it’s more than twice the volume of the little case I used for my A-T headset.
  • The charging port is in the inline control rather than the transceiver/battery compartment. Strange.
Conclusions:

The Hammerhead BT delivers on low lag, noise isolation, and good sound. It should work well for mobile gaming, and it certainly serves my humble writing purposes. At $99 USD (MSRP), it’s comparable in price to the wired Audio-Technica noise-cancelling in-ear headset, and 30% less expensive than A-T’s in-ear Bluetooth model. It’s a third of the price of Bose noise-cancelling in-ear sets. With its two-year warranty, it’s a solid bargain.

A Warning About Counterfeits:

Several reviewers on Amazon report receiving counterfeit Razer headsets. The counterfeit headsets are flimsy and perform poorly. Needless to say, Razer won’t support them, and they can’t be registered for warranty. My suggestions:

  • Buy from Amazon directly—be sure that the product page says “Sold by and shipped from Amazon.com” when you buy. Avoid third-party sellers.
  • OR—Buy from Best Buy or other major brick-and-mortar retailer.
  • OR—Buy from the https://RAZER.com website.

And finally, register your warranty at http://razerzone.com/registration as soon as you receive your headset! The information you need is all on the outside of the box; you needn’t break the shrink wrap. If you can’t register it, then it’s likely counterfeit and you should return it for a refund ASAP (if you can).

How to Give Your Older Macbook Air a “Retina” Screen

I don’t know about you, but I have a severe technology envy problem. I look at tech specs of new Apple products and heave deep, heartfelt sighs. In particular, I would very much like a newer Macbook 12 instead of my older Macbook Air 11. It’s… well, it’s lighter. To a former aerospace engineer, 5.6 ounces saved is 5.6 ounces, man! Think what you can boost with an extra 5.6 ounces to spare for fuel!

You can get Retina-style resolution on your older Macbook Air.

Not only that, but it has that nice, crisp Retina screen. Reading on the normal resolution Macbook Air 11 with a pixel density1 of 135 DPI—sometimes I take off my glasses and look at the screen from a distance of six inches (I’m very nearsighted) in order to read something. It doesn’t always help. The Retina displays on my iOS devices show text that is more crisp, and have more detail in the graphics.

I discovered a way around the lack of a “Retina” display quite by accident. Here’s my secret:

SwitchResX $16 USD (free trial available)

SwitchResX is a utility designed to give its users far more control over monitors and their resolutions than Apple is willing to provide. Bluntly, it has a lot more complexity than I’ll ever need, and I’m comfortable with tech (see above.) But for $16 it gave me a Retina screen equivalent for my Macbook Air, without delving into the tech details further than an added menubar icon.

You’ll need admin privileges on your account to install it. For these purposes, you’ll only need to set two of its preferences (open System Preferences; tap on the SwitchResX icon towards the bottom of the screen.) Be sure that its menubar extra is enabled (SRX menus prefs), and that the “SwitchResX daemon” is set to Launch on login (SRX general prefs). Close the SRX prefs window and quit System Preferences.

Now click on that new menubar icon that looks like a screen. You should see a long list of resolutions that you never knew your Macbook Air had available. Select the largest one that says “HiDPI” next to it, and you’re in business! (Note that if you have a Macbook Air 13 you’ll probably want one that’s in a 16:10 ratio, and for a Macbook Air 11 you’ll want 16:9.)

For the Macbook Air 11, that’s a DPI in HiDPI mode of 253 pixels per linear inch, higher than the Macbook Pro 13’s 220 DPI in Retina mode.

Enjoy your rejuvenated Mac!

(Note that I still envy Macbook 12 owners—after all, they have Macbooks that are 5.6 ounces lighter than mine. I just don’t envy them as much.)


  1. A note on resolution, pixel density, and what “Retina” means: Resolution, as commonly used these days, means the number of pixels horizontally and vertically on a screen. Thus, the Macbook Air 11 has a maximum resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels. This is a measure of how much information the display can present.

    Pixel density, on the other hand, is a measure of how crammed that information is. 135 DPI is pretty darn crammed for a normal monitor. My LG Ultrawide 25UM58 monitor (also normal) has a maximum pixel density of 111 DPI, and the pre-Retina Macbook Air 13 has 128 as its nominal max.

    “Retina” in Apple parlance is much the same thing as “HiDPI” in Windows terminology. Each means that four physical pixels are used to display each “logical” pixel. So at least in terms of how much text can be displayed at a given point size, the “resolution” is diminished by a factor of two in each dimension. That text will be far more crisp and easy to read, however.

    Windows is more honest about this (IMO): Apple will describe a “2560-by-1600 (Retina)” resolution, which means the same thing as Windows “1280 x 800 HiDPI”. Both screens will display exactly the same amount of sharp Times New Roman 12 point text. 

Mazec Handwriting Input Keyboard for iOS Review #amwriting

Fashions in apps change. When Apple introduced third-party on-screen keyboard apps back in iOS 8, they were mostly productivity enhancements. Hopeful developers put tons of swiping keyboards, fast thumb-typing keyboards, and handwriting recognition keyboards on the App Store. I bought a lot of them. What I wanted was—and is—a way to use handwriting as input for iOS Scrivener.

Using Mazec for handwriting input in iOS Scrivener

Now almost all the keyboards I can find on the App Store are for putting little pictures in your texts. The developers have taken almost all the productivity keyboards I’ve bought and/or reviewed off the App Store. But here’s one that’s survived, that I bought recently:

Mazec English Keyboard, $9.99 USD on the App Store

My summary:

Overall ****
Recognition *****
Punctuation ***
Setup ****
Ease of Use ***

First, please understand that all third-party soft keyboards labour under multiple handicaps, since Apple does not permit them to access dictation or some other Apple-provided keyboard features. Further, in order to access their own internal preferences and build custom dictionaries, these keyboards must request full security access. If this freaks you out, these keyboards aren’t for you.

In addition, handwriting recognition as an input method for English has problems. It’s not as fast as hardware typing by a factor of at least two. By using a swiping keyboard (SwiftKey is still available and maintained, if you’re interested) you can get much faster on-screen input as well. I consider handwriting input as special-purpose only. I use it for getting myself started when I’m fighting “writer’s block.” As soon as words are flowing, I switch to something faster.

Now, on to my review.

Recognition

Recognition of my crummy cursive handwriting is the best of any these keyboards I’ve tried, including the late and much-lamented MyScript Stylus. I could get decent recognition from the PhatWare products (Penquills and Write Pad for iPad) by carefully informing the apps of which strokes I used to form each letter—but with Mazec this is unnecessary.

On the other hand, Mazec is difficult about non-dictionary words. It just doesn’t seem to add new words without a lot of repetitions in block letters. There’s no way to manually add new dictionary words, either. But after a while it does seem to learn.

Punctuation

Punctuation is a problem with these keyboards, and Mazec is no exception. Hashtags, quotes, bullets, underscores—expect to go back through and correct punctuation with the default Apple keyboard or a hardware keyboard.

Setup

Setup is minimal. There are no themes and few options. Fortunately it works well as installed. But if you insist on dark mode, it doesn’t exist.

Ease of Use

All the other handwriting keyboards I’ve used have some means to allow continuous writing. Either they automatically insert after a short delay, or you can insert the recognition buffer by going back and writing over its start.

Not so with Mazec. You must tap the insert button occasionally. It’s a mild irritation for me and an impediment to my workflow, but not so very bad as handwriting input is slow anyway.

Editing is not as nice as MyScript Stylus. There are no editing gestures. The delete button will let you erase the last gesture, the last word or the whole recognition buffer. One thing that is nice is the built-in cursor move arrows—which make editing practical, if not fun. Mazec is about equal to the PhatWare products in ease of editing.

Conclusions

If I had to start with a handwriting input keyboard now, Mazec is perfectly serviceable. But I’m going to keep using MyScript Stylus and the PhatWare keyboards as long as they still work.

Almost NaNoWriMo—Thoughts and Plans #amwriting #NaNoWriMo

To quote from Final Fantasy XIII: “Plans? Heroes don’t need plans!”

Yes, I will do something new for NaNoWriMo this year. I don’t have a name for it because I don’t know what it will be. I’ll start a new Scrivener project and look at the blank screen and start typing.

iPad handwriting recognition
Handwriting recognition (via WritePad for iPad) can get me started.

Or perhaps I’ll start handwriting, as I do quite well with handwriting recognition on my iPad (credit to WritePad for iPad)—it’s perhaps the best way for me to Just Start Writing. I’ll switch over to my Mac once I’m rolling, but there’s nothing like handwriting for jump-starting ideas.

In any event, my goal is 50,000 new words in November. They may not all be on my new project—I’ll likely keep on working on the interminable Novel In Progress as well.

To get the commitment going, though, I just created that new project on my iPad. See y’all November 1!

—UPDATE 10/29/2018—
Oh no! The PhatWare apps have been removed from the App Store! They still work on iOS 12.0.x, so if you have them you’re good, but they can’t be purchased or downloaded from the App Store any more. 😦 My bad.

ADHD, the Silver Dragon Theory of Headset Ratings, and Comply Ear Tips #amwriting

As an ADHD writer, I consider a decent level of noise isolation (or noise cancellation) plus a source of instrumental music or soothing noise (AKA “distraction filter”) essential to being able to get any writing done. I had been using my HyperX Cloud II gaming headset for this purpose. But… I lost it.

This is a mild disaster.

Don’t ask me how I lost it. The thing was huge. You’d think that I would be able to keep track of it much more easily than a pair of earbuds. But there it was—or rather, there it wasn’t. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had it out of my backpack and no one turned it in as lost-and-found in any of my usual haunts.

My old reliable Audio-Technica noise-cancelling headset (https://www.audio-technica.com)

So I’ve reverted to my old standby, the Audio-Technica QuietPoint in-ear headset (ATH-ANC33iS.) While it doesn’t have as good a mic as the HyperX, I’ve given up on dictation, anyway. Its ratings on Amazon are mediocre, but this is true for in-ear headsets in general, and I have my theory as to why.
Comply ear tips rescue almost any in-ear headset. https://www.complyfoam.com

The Silver Dragon Theory of Headset Reviews:

Almost all ear tips (the parts that actually go inside your ear) suck.

Maybe not the ones from Bose. Those appear to get almost universal praise in Amazon reviews. But all the other manufacturers (including Apple) have reviews that hinge heavily on whether the ear tips provided actually happen to fit the reviewer’s ears. If the fit is poor or the tip doesn’t seal with the ear canal, there may be tinny sound, discomfort, poor noise isolation, and the earpiece may just fall out. Thus, since on-ear or over-ear headsets have fewer fit problems, in-ear headsets have consistently poorer reviews than the same manufacturer’s outside-ear models.

For years now, I’ve just thrown away those silicone ear tips that come with most in-ear headsets, and replaced them with Comply Ear Tips. First, because they’re made from memory foam, I can get a good fit (you compress them before inserting, like foam earplugs.) Second, they do a decent job of noise isolation. Not as good as my HyperX Cloud did, but much better than those little silicone earbud donuts. Finally, I can replace them when they wear out. Even the cheapest gas station ear buds will work OK to filter distractions if I have a pair of Complies on me that will fit the buds.

That said, the old Audio-Technica headset has seen better days. The belt clip on its control and battery box has broken, and fewer devices come with wired headset connectors. So I’m thinking about its possible replacement with a noise-cancelling Bluetooth headset.

Hmm… I should find out whether anyone makes in-ear Bluetooth gaming headsets…

UPDATE: I just added the Razer Hammerhead BT to my Christmas list. Stay tuned…

Scrivener v. iPhone XS Max? #amwriting

Does anyone out there have both a new iPhone XS Max and iOS Scrivener? If so, would you please open a Scrivener project on that XS Max while the phone’s in landscape mode? The tutorial project will do.

In landscape mode, you should see a display similar to this, with both the Binder and a document displayed:

But at least one person on the Scrivener forum reported that it wasn’t available—that only the binder or a document would show in landscape mode, not both.

Would you please let me know whether you see a side-by-side Binder and document via comment or email? (you can use my contact page form.) I’m very interested, as I’m contemplating my next iPhone—and I’d prefer a nice iPhone 8 Plus that shows the binder to a fancy iPhone XS Max that doesn’t.