Bashing a broken feature of Apple Configurator 2

I have commented before on some of Apple Configurator 2's (AC2) broken features. There are even some new annoyances that have come to light that make me wonder if Apple hired some high school students for a weekend to program AC2.

One of the biggest things that Apple broke in AC2 that worked just fine in Configurator 1 (AC1) is related to the device names. If you manage a large set of shared iPads, you probably need to fully wipe the iPads from time-to-time to clear out personal user data. Wiping the iPads with a Prepare job is easy enough. Unfortunately, when you run the Prepare job, AC2 resets the names of the iPads and completely forgets the previously assigned names! This is a huge problem when you're trying to troubleshoot issues with a specific iPad. In AC1, the iPads would get renamed to the previously assigned name. I have no idea why Apple removed this functionality in AC2.

In my previous post, I described how to use AC2 in combination with AC1. The Prepare is done via AC2 (which has some iOS 9+ specific Prepare options not found in AC1), and then run AC1 to rename the iPads. Unfortunately, we just replaced the Macs used to manage our iPads and AC1 doesn't just want to rename the iPads, but now wipes them too (undoing the Prepare job). There may also be people out there who don't have AC1 (and don't feel comfortable retrieving it from some sketchy download site).

Bash to the rescue!

AC2 does include a very handy command-line utility that can be used in bash shell scripts to both capture the current device names, and apply those names back to the right iPads. To ensure the command-line utility is installed, click the Apple Configurator 2 menu, and choose "Install Automation Tools...". Now to create the files you will need.

First, let's create a mapping of device ID to current name. Make sure all of the iPads you want to manage are connected. Open a Terminal window and run the following commands.

mkdir ~/Desktop/Rename
/usr/local/bin/cfgutil list | sed -e 's/.*ECID: 0x/0x/' | sed -e 's/[ ]*UDID: .*Name: /,/' >> ~/Desktop/Rename/ipad_lookup.txt

Note that is a tab between the [ ]. You cannot just hit the tab key in Terminal for a tab. You must first press CTRL+V, then the tab key.

This will create a CSV (comma separated values) text file with the device ID to name mapping in a folder called "Rename" on your desktop. Save this file (make a backup somewhere). You don't want to lose it. Open the file with a text editor to make sure all of the iPads are listed. You should only need to run this command once unless you add more iPads or decide to rename them.

Once you have the above file, you can safely run a Prepare job. After the Prepare job is done, you will need a script to rename the iPads. Rather than give full details about how to create a script here, I will simply refer you to another site describing the process. It isn't hard, and you just need to do this once. Simply follow the steps there, copying in the following lines into the script.

#!/bin/bash
WORKDIR=~/Desktop/Rename
/usr/local/bin/cfgutil list | sed -e 's/.*ECID: 0x/0x/' | sed -e 's/.UDID:.*//' > $WORKDIR/connected_iPads
while read ECID; do
  IPADNAME=`grep $ECID $WORKDIR/ipad_lookup.txt | sed -e 's/.*,//'`
  /usr/local/bin/cfgutil -e $ECID rename "$IPADNAME"
done < "$WORKDIR/connected_iPads"
rm $WORKDIR/connected_iPads

Make sure to save the script in the Rename folder on your desktop. I named the script file "renameConnectediPads.sh".

That script first detects all connected devices. For each connected device, it looks up the unique device ID in the previously created ipad_lookup.txt file, and renames the iPad accordingly. You can run this script while AC2 is running, and watch the names change as the script runs.

There you have it. Bash scripting is extremely powerful, and in just a few lines it solves one of the most annoying problems with AC2.

The Physical Web

This will just be a quick post for an experiment over the next few days.

If you are at FETC 2017 and get notified about this post, take a look around. I should be nearby. Introduce yourself and let me know your experiences with beacons and the physical web.

For those of you reading this and wondering what the heck is the physical web, take a look at bkon.com's Physical Web Q&A.

As for my own personal experiences, I have yet to stumble across a single beacon in my travels. Maybe that will change this week since this is the first large technology conference I will be at since enabling the physical web settings on my device.

New PC Laptop - Nearly Four Years Later

I purchased a Lenovo Y580 laptop three years, ten months ago. I blogged about that experience, and talked about its specs, particularly compared to the MacBook Pro of the time. I was able to put together a relatively powerful laptop for less than $1400 (Canadian). Of course, that was back when the Canadian dollar was pretty much at par with the US dollar.

I started to feel the "upgrade bug" this year, and had a pretty good feeling some technological features would come together to make it a good time to purchase my next computer. The Lenovo Y580 was my first gaming laptop, and it really was a (mostly) good experience, so I'm sticking with a laptop again this time around.

After looking at several models, I found the Asus GL702VM. This laptop ships in two versions; one with a 256GB SSD for $1599 US and another with just the 1TB hard drive for $1399US. You can pick up a 256GB SSD for much less than $200, so the cheaper model is a wiser choice. With an SSD added, the GL702VM is a higher price than the Y580 was 4 years ago (as I had it configured), but only slightly. Unfortunately, the Canadian dollar is only worth about 75 cents US, so in Canadian dollars there is a pretty large difference.

So, how big of a difference is there between these two mid-range laptops launched nearly four years apart? Well, there are a few noticeable technological improvements, and there are some surprisingly similar details that really highlight how technological advancements have started to slow to a crawl.

Processor

The processor in the Y580 is an Intel Core i7 3630QM. This is the third generation 2.4GHz quad-core, eight-thread Intel Core i processor. The GL702VM has a sixth generation Core i7 6700HQ, a 2.6GHz quad-core, eight-thread processor. PC Perspective ran comprehensive benchmarks comparing Intel Core processors from the second generation through the sixth. The improvements from the 3rd- to 6th-gen Core i7 processor range from 5% to 50%, but most falling around the 15% to 20% range. This assumes that the processors are running at the same speed, but the i7 6700HQ has a 200MHz advantage.

However, these improvements need to be put into context. The improvements PC Perspective saw in games was exaggerated by using a dual-video card setup that is not only known to be CPU intensive, but also more expensive than most gamers can afford. Some of the benchmarks are referred to as "synthetic" because they are directly measuring CPU performance and aren't actual programs that a user would run.

So, the real question is, does the new laptop "feel faster" in the day-to-day applications that I run? In short, no. I imagine I could get figures accurate to a fraction of a second, but I ran various tests simultaneously between the two laptops and then just observed how long a task would take. To try to make it a "fair fight", I reformatted the Y580 with a fresh install of Windows 10. Start up, shut down and rebooting times were virtually identical. Most programs launched slightly faster on the new Asus laptop, but generally this would mean less than two seconds difference. Application loading aside, the new laptop doesn't actually feel any faster for general use. There were some instances where the new laptop performed quite a bit better, but I am certain that it had little to do with the processor. I'll touch on those later.

Memory

From the start, I had configured the Y580 with 16GB of RAM running in dual channel (two 8GB memory modules). Although 8GB of RAM is normally sufficient for most users, I like to run virtual machines on my computer, so more RAM is definitely better. What about the GL702VM? It has one 16GB RAM module. Of course there has been a transition to a newer type of memory (DDR3 to DDR4), but there are few applications that benefit from slightly faster memory in any significant way. In fact, the total memory bandwidth will probably be slightly lower on the new laptop since the new DDR4 memory is only running in single channel compared to the dual channel configuration of the DDR3 memory.

So, after nearly four years, I have the exact same amount of RAM in my new laptop.

Storage

Solid state drives (SSDs) have been rapidly gaining in popularity over the last several years. Even in 2012, I knew that any system (laptop or otherwise) that I would get would have to have an SSD. For years, traditional hard drives were the primary storage device in computers. As processors, RAM, graphics chips, and virtually every other component in a computer were getting significantly faster every year, hard drives were only getting incrementally faster. Hard drives have a way of making even the most powerful computer slow to a crawl, especially while starting up or launching an application.

So, when I ordered the Y580 I added in a 256GB SSD. That SSD is still working great today and uses an interface known as SATA (mSATA, SATA III to be precise). When ordering the GL702VM, I managed to get a really good pre-order price on the model with the 256GB SSD. Despite Asus' own product page bragging about the new, faster NVMe SSD interface, the SSD they pre-install is still based on SATA. Although it uses the same interface as the older SSD, the new SSD is definitely faster. When dealing with large programs, such as games, the new laptop would finish loading noticeably sooner. As an example, the graphics benchmark Unigine Valley finished loading roughly 8 seconds faster on the GL702VM.

While SSD's are fast, they are quite a bit more expensive than traditional hard drives. If you want to store lots of files (pictures, videos, etc), you are probably going to still need a hard drive. The Y580 came with a 1TB 5400rpm hard drive. The GL702VM ships with a 1TB 7200rpm hard drive, so it is technically faster, but it makes little difference in how fast the laptop feels.

One other noticeable difference between the two laptops is something that the new laptop lacks; optical storage. The Y580 included a Blu-ray reader. The lack of an optical drive in a new laptop is hardly a surprise today. I tend to be more surprised by how many laptops still include one. There is an advantage to not having an optical drive as well; it helps keep the weight and size of the laptop down. This new, more powerful laptop is actually slightly lighter than the old one (2.7 kg vs 2.8 kg), and is quite a bit thinner (24mm vs 36mm).

Again, like with the RAM, I am getting a laptop with the exact same amount of storage, and drives that are only slightly faster than I have been using for nearly four years.

GPU (Graphics Chip)

Right off the bat I will say that this is one area where the new laptop has definitely improved in a huge way. The new GTX 1060 graphics processing unit (GPU) has over three times as many graphics "cores" that are two generations newer than the GTX 660m found in my old laptop. Those cores in the GTX 1060 also run at clock speeds nearly double those found in the GTX 660m. There is three times as much graphics memory on the GTX 1060 (6GB vs 2GB), and that memory has three times as much bandwidth as the GTX 660m (192GB/s vs 64GB/s). When it comes to graphics intensive applications, like games, there is no comparison between the new and old laptops.

The GL702VM is able to play any modern game with relative ease. The Y580 can play those same games, but many graphical details must be scaled back and/or the game must be run at a lower resolution. Finally, this is one area where four years has made a huge difference.

Display

I have to admit that I didn't need a new laptop; not really anyway. The Y580 was only starting to show its age when it came to the latest video games with high-end system requirements. I could have still played those games; they just wouldn't have looked as good. There is one reason that I needed to replace my laptop. At 45 years old, I have started to notice that a 15.6 inch 1080 display is getting to be just a little too small. This time I went a little bigger; the GL702VM has a 17.3 inch 1080 display.

Remarkably, the new laptop is barely larger than the 15.6" Y580. The bezels around the display are actually quite small. The GL702VM is only about 30mm wider, and 25mm deeper than the Y580.

Other than the size advantage, the new display is capable of refreshing at up to 75Hz. Many laptops (including the Y580) have a refresh rate of 60Hz. I say "up to 75Hz" because the new laptop includes a technology called G-Sync. This is an important technology for gaming. There are much better descriptions of G-Sync out there, but in short it lets the laptop refresh the display when a new full frame is ready rather than at a fixed rate. With fixed refresh rates, games suffer from one of two issues (the user chooses which). You can either tell the graphics chip to draw the frames whenever they're ready, or tell it to synchronize fully drawn frames with the refresh rate. The former leads to an issue known as tearing; the top portion of the screen has part of one frame, while the bottom of the screen is showing part of the following frame. The latter choice causes stutter; the graphics chip may not be finished drawing a full screen when the display is ready, so it waits for the next refresh cycle.

The new display uses an IPS panel compared to the old laptop's TN panel. IPS panels have much better colours and brightness, and wider viewing angles.

Other New/Cool Stuff

Although there are some aspects of the new laptop that fail to impress when compared to my old laptop, there are definitely some cool technologies that I am excited about.

The first is the Thunderbolt 3 port. This port uses a USB Type-C connector (which is becoming more common every month), but is quite a bit faster than a regular USB 3.1 port (40Gbps vs 10Gbps). One of the most exciting Thunderbolt 3 accessories is an external GPU dock. This makes it possible to add a full desktop graphics card to the laptop down the road. Hopefully the new laptop is as good to me as the Y580, and it should last me even longer than 4 years.

Another technology that is "under the hood" is the ability to use an NVMe SSD. NVMe SSDs are quite a bit faster than (the already fast) SATA-based SSDs. Again, this is a technology that should help keep this laptop feeling quick for several years.

One final reason to get excited about the GL702VM is that it is VR capable and meets the requirements of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift VR headsets. Of course, these headsets are quite expensive right now, but at least I know the laptop will be able to handle VR.

Mainstreaming VR

Two of the major players in the world of VR tech are the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. These two VR headsets may take slightly different approaches to creating immersive VR, but they both approach the 3D aspect of it in very similar ways, and have nearly identical system requirements. The system requirements themselves are quite steep, especially when it comes to the chip in the PC used to process graphics.

In the last month, the two major graphics chip makers have released new graphics cards for PCs that help make VR slightly more affordable. At the end of June, AMD released the $200 (US) Radeon RX 480 graphics card, and in mid-July Nvidia released the $249 (US) Geforce GTX 1060.

What makes these cards so important to VR is the price. Prior to the launch of these cards, the cheapest video card that met the requirements of the Vive and Rift would typically have cost the consumer well over $300. Reducing the "cost of entry" to any technology by $50 to $200 is a great step. In March, one site priced out a system that met the minimum system requirements for VR, and it totaled $939. The video card used in that build was $309, and there are now Radeon RX480 cards priced at $199. That drops the total PC build price by nearly 12%!

Recent rumours point to the Nvidia GTX 1060 making its way into laptops, mostly unchanged from the chip in the desktop video cards. In the past, Nvidia has launched "M" (mobile) versions of their graphics chips that were significantly different from their desktop parts. Laptops based on Nvidia's past x60 graphics chips could often be found for sale in the $1000 to $1200 range. The prices on laptops using Nvidia's previous generation of chips (the GTX 960) can be found quite a bit lower right now. That is a good sign that laptops using the new generation chips will likely be available soon. If the rumours about the mobile GTX 1060 are true, it is possible that fully VR capable laptops may be available for under $1200 in the very near future.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest barriers to VR headsets being mainstream is the cost of the headsets themselves. The Oculus Rift is $600 (US), while the Vive is an even heftier $800. When considering this as part of the total VR system, a price drop of $200 won't help get VR into the mainstream. That's OK for now. Perhaps by the time the headsets see a significant price drop, there will actually be apps, content, and games available that make it worth using VR.

Or maybe VR is the next 3D TV; a lot of hype that just fizzles out.

The best thing about the iOS 9.3 release

Anyone even remotely familiar with Apple knows that, alongside the new iPad and iPhone, there is a new version of iOS. The new software includes some great new features and updates, and at least one major feature that schools have been wanting for a long time.

There is a new Night Shift mode that may help users get better sleep. Notes can now be locked (passcode or Touch ID). Stills can now be extracted from Live Photos. There is even multi-user support for schools with shared iPads!

The multi-user support is something that we will want to explore as soon as possible. I know there are many schools that have wanted this feature for a long time. I still haven't had a chance to investigate exactly how it works, or how it impacts the deployment process, but that's where the actual best thing about the iOS release comes in. It's the timing.

Major iOS updates are typically delivered with the release of the new flagship iPhone. The problem is that, since the iPhone 4S, that has happened in the fall, just after all of a school's iPads have been deployed. Administrators are left scrambling trying to figure out the impact of the new software. Worse, Apple has made it easy for the user to go ahead and update devices, even if the administrator doesn't yet know the impact of (problems with) the update.

Now, I know this is just a "point release", and I know that iOS 10 (X?) will probably still be released in the fall. I'm just glad that this update, with such a major feature for schools, isn't landing after a new school year has just barely begun. Sure, May or June would be best, but September and October are probably the worst possible time for a new iOS release.

Training Challenges in the North

Iqaluit, Nunavut.

In February.

When I was first asked if I would be available to provide SMART Notebook training to teachers in Iqaluit, my main concern was that I did not have the gear to handle Canada's far north in the middle of winter. Sure, I had a parka, some gloves, and boots. That isn't uncommon for Canadians.

But there's a pretty big difference between winter in southern Ontario and northern Canada.

As it turns out, the weather wasn't nearly the challenge I thought it would be (even though my flight out did get cancelled due to a blizzard). I picked up some better boots, better mittens, a balaclava, and some snow pants, and ended up walking around quite a bit while in Iqaluit. It was a great experience, and I only fell through the snow once!

The real challenge of Iqaluit, from an educational technology training perspective, is the state of the Internet.

The Internet speed at the hotel would lead me to click on a web link, walk away to do something else, and come back to the computer a couple of minutes later. The speed at the school wasn't any better. In fact, the school Internet was further impacted by the government filters. I have to wonder how long it will take for officials to realize that the filters are increasingly ineffective, especially as students begin to bring their own data-enabled devices into the classroom. The filters also end up blocking useful teaching tools and valuable information (some of the SMART-related resources appeared to be blocked). SMART Response worked, but not particularly well and would not be usable for more than a handful of questions. To SMART's credit, the question web pages are actually quite small. Unfortunately, the school's Internet connection is so slow, the question pages would still take up to a minute to load on student devices. There is another delay between the student clicking to submit a response, and the response being "received" by the teacher.

Surprisingly, SMART Maestro, the iPad-enabled feature of Notebook, ran smoothly. This must mean that most or all of the network traffic required to mirror the SMART Board to the iPad must stay on the local network.



On my third day of training, I asked the teachers what their strategies were for integrating Internet-based materials into the classroom. In unison, several teachers replied, "We don't". This may seem like a shocking response in the 21st century, but it isn't a surprise once you've tried using the Internet in the school for a few days.

So, the solution could be to pre-download resources from home. The teachers did comment that their Internet speed at home was quite a bit better than the Internet at the school. This was a solution used to a limited degree by some teachers, but there was another problem. It seems that the best deal for Internet in Iqaluit only includes roughly 40GB of monthly data, and each additional GB is $15! Ouch! I can barely stay below my 275GB monthly allotment and have considered paying the additional $10/month to get unlimited bandwidth. That's great for me, but there is clearly a problem with "Internet equity" in Canada.

The CRTC is currently soliciting input on broadband connectivity in Canada. The completed questionnaires must be submitted by February 29, 2016, so go participate as soon as possible (but please just read a little further first).

Before you respond to that poll, just take a few moments. Forget about Netflix. Forget about iTunes. Think about your own child not having access to the Internet to research a school subject. Consider that other students across the country have relatively easy access to resources like Homework Help, Khan Academy, and a variety of other online learning resources. Many school districts are moving to Google Apps or Office 365, tools that help enable collaboration and 21st century skills. From what I experienced in Iqaluit, these tools would be virtually unusable.

Apple, FBI, ISIS, and Secrets

This goes significantly off-topic from what I normally talk about, but still revolves around technology (and even touches on the potential impact on education). The news about the FBI demanding that Apple unlock the phone of one of the San Bernardino gunmen is everywhere, and the FBI using the suffering of the victims' families to get what they want is not only immoral, it is irresponsible.

One of the most common arguments that comes up regarding encryption and secrets is that if you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide. This could not be further from the truth. Many businesses around the world depend on trade secrets, or keeping secret the development and progress of new products and technology. Law enforcement agencies may be protecting the identities of undercover agents, witnesses, or victims. You know, agencies like, say, the FBI. Can you say you have nothing to hide while still demanding answers about the breaches in security at Target, Neiman Marcus, and Michaels? More in line with education, schools and districts must also be sure they are keeping student information secure and private. This is not just something that should be done, but something that must be done. We all have "something to hide", even if we're not doing anything wrong.

The FBI is claiming they hope to discover information on the phone; information that will help prevent other terror attacks. This is highly unlikely, and the FBI knows it. The San Bernardino gunmen were a man and a woman. Islamic extremists (ISIS, Taliban) do not use women as "soldiers". This act of terror appears to have been "ISIS-inpired", but that is very different from "ISIS-plotted". The FBI can get access to phone records, even without access to the phone. They likely already have a good idea who the gunmen were in contact with, and there is little else they could discover from the phone itself.

Asking Apple to try to create a method to circumvent security measures puts far more people at risk than any possible gain from unlocking this one phone.

There is a belief that the burden on, or cost to, Apple to circumvent the security of the phone is relatively small because they are such a large and wealthy company. Again, this could not be further from the truth. If Apple is successful in gaining access to the phone, it calls into question, at least from the perspective of the public, the actual security of Apple's products. Apple could potentially lose contracts for large-scale deployments to government agencies, businesses, and yes, even school districts. The public perception of ineffective security could also cost Apple consumer sales. There are so many costs that go beyond the simple costs related to the hours required for Apple's developers to gain access to the phone's contents.

There isn't anything the FBI can do to bring back the victims of the attack, and it is disturbing that they are using the grief of the victims' families to advance some hidden and unrelated agenda.