Anker, AirPods and the Physics of Bluetooth

This is a hands-on product review of the Anker “SoundBuds Sport IE 20” Bluetooth earphones and a hands-off bashing of the design of upcoming Apple AirPods. The $30 cost of the Ankers was an experiment, which turned into a rather useful purchase to accompany my iPhone.  I explain why physics is the limiting factor to the performance of these products.

I have been using these $30 Bluetooth headphones now for about 2-3 weeks. The Anker SoundBuds Sport IE 20 was my first Bluetooth device since I abandoned the Jawbone Bluetooth earpiece years ago due to a serious dropout problem; the problem, however, was with PHYSICS and not the product itself (which I otherwise rather liked).

This purchase was fueled by the Apple AirPods announcement. Those jewels will set you back $159 per pair, and the use of the word "pair" is key.  Well, it's really three pieces... the two wireless earbuds and the rechargeable charging case.

These Ankers use a cable from USB to some micro connector to charge their batteries. A multi-color LED gives you charging information which is quite simple and useful.

The wire between the two earpieces does more than meets the eye. It distributes audio signals and power, and apparently serves as the antenna. But, the most important use is keeping them around your neck when you pull them out of your ears. The most surprising finding in my experiment: that wire is absolutely necessary to make these ergonomically useful.

The Ankers have a clever feature behind their utilitarian-shaped flat backs: magnets. When you put the backs together, they stick to each other which does two important things. It turns them into a necklace around your neck, which is a very convenient, useful and durable storage position. It also disconnects their power, saving their (very small) batteries when they are not in use. THIS is brilliant design. They don't seem to quite know how to trumpet these features based on the adverts that I have seen, making them a triumph of Engineering over Art. One look at the cinder-block inspired design confirms that Art had left the building.

The Ankers come with a little bag of at least three different sizes of rubber "grommets" for fitting to your ear canal. Then there is some other rubber widgets with horn-shaped protrusions to help keep them in your ear. All of which is user-customizable and optional. I needed to use the large size grommets, and that's it. They work perfectly, sound good, and don't fall out. When all is said and done, there is remaining this little bag of spare rubber parts sitting on your desk. Maybe you'll change your grommet sizes some day, maybe you won't. But, it's a reminder that Anker acknowledged that not everybody's ear is the same shape. Apparently Jony Ive has not.

And then there are the audio dropouts: the annoying loss of connection between your Bluetooth earphones and your audio source.  And it’s due to physics, not Anker nor Apple nor Bluetooth per se.

I call it the "Right-Ear Left-Back-Pocket Problem" (RELBaPP). Bluetooth operates on the 2.4 GHz frequency band, which is the same band as WiFi. And microwave ovens.  Your body is a very, very good absorber of 2.4 GHz energy.  Mostly, it’s because you are a carbon-based bag of salty water.  Radio frequency (RF) energy that hits your body will be largely absorbed and turned into heat.  Remember that microwave oven?  Same deal, it's just that you are not a roast chicken and the heat generated is many, many orders of magnitude smaller.

Radio waves, like light (which are radio waves), want to travel in a straight line.  The problem is that the straight line between your right ear and your left rear pocket goes right through a big carbon-based bag of salty water.  So, does the path between your right ear and your left ear.  Guess where I keep my iPhone.  Yep.  

So, in three weeks of using the Anker bluetooth headphones, I have had audio dropouts.  When I am standing up, walking about my workshop and listening to podcasts, they are infrequent and brief.  If I sit at my desk, they are more frequent.  Subjectively, however, it’s better than my old Jawbone earpiece which was eventually abandoned due to its dropout behavior.  And that MAY be due to the use of the Anker’s connecting wire (or part of it) as the antenna, it’s size making it more efficient than a tiny internal antenna.  

(Surprisingly, Dear Reader, this antenna designer will not bore you with an antenna lecture at this time.  You’re welcome.)

The Ankers are a keeper.  They are useful, convenient, and fill a need for me.  I listen to lots of podcasts, and a little music.  When I am working in my shop or washing dishes, the lack of wires is welcome.  Their sound attenuating design helps in noisy environments.  The battery life is adequate, and I am unbothered by the need to plug a cable into them for charging.  At $30 for the Ankers, it’s a rather painless purchase.

Enter the Apple AirPods.  I’d like to be wrong, but I think they are going to be a disaster.

Their shape appears to be the same as the latest Apple ear buds with the wires cut off.  Well, that shape never fit my ears (unlike the previous generations), and there was no solution.  So, in my office, in my “Apple Stuff” box, there are multiple copies of those fashionably-designed earbuds in their fashionably-designed plastic boxes, unused.  Nobody in my Apple-equipped family uses them.  I have friends that echoed the same situation, and Apple has no recompense.  If you don’t have a fashionably-designed ear, you can’t use these ear buds.  And the AirPods appear to have the same shape with no further solutions offered.  Maybe a carefully crafted bit of duct-tape can help you customize your $159 AirPods.  How unique they will be!

And when you need to remove your headphones because you are having a conversation with a coworker, what do you do?  With my Ankers, I pop one out and let it hang by the wire.  Or, take both out and click them together around my neck.  The AirPods will need to be shoved in a pocket, or the charger case which you are (additionally) carrying in your pocket.  Their size is their liability.  (It took fifteen seconds after the product announcement for a company to offer an aftermarket “string” for the AirPods.)

If an AirPod pops out of your ear by accident, it's gone.  And at $159 per pair, it’ll be interesting to see what Apple will charge to sell you a single one.

Neither Anker nor Apple can change physics.  There’s a lot of salty water between either earpiece and your left back pocket.  And between each other.  But don’t worry, I am certain that Apple did extensive testing during the RF design of the AirPods.  There is no way they would release a product that won’t work as designed around the human body.  Between computer simulations, testing with human-body analogs, and beta-testing with real people, you KNOW their product will work insanely great.

And they’re still compatible with your old iPhone 4.  As long as you’re holding it right.



Security Flaw in Automotive Keyless Entry

Recently there was a security exploit identified in automotive keyless systems. 

Normally, the car sends out an RF ping to the fob on a low frequency, to which the fob responds on UHF.  If the system determines that the fob is nearby AND a hand is detected by a capacitive sensor, the car unlocks.  Also, if the fob is inside the car AND the ignition button is pressed, the car will start. 

The fallacy of this system is that signal strength implies distance.  The exploit involves amplifying the ping from the car such that the fob will respond even at a large distance.  The UHF back-channel is very strong, and needs no further help up to 50 meters away, or so.

Others on the web have described the expolits in detail, but to me, the restaurant scenario is scariest.  The perpetrators observe the “mark” going in to a restaurant for dinner after parking his car.  Bad Guy A goes in and stands next to the mark with a briefcase.  Bad Guy B stands next to the car with another briefcase.  Briefcase contains... “electronic stuff”.  Open car and burgle. This has been demonstrated.

Steve Gibson covers this and provides pointers to resources at his site HERE, Episode #508.

You can also watch the video of his podcast at HERE.

And finally, here is a video of a simple shield solution costing less than $2 that I tested....


Design versus Engineering

Seen in Fast Company Magazine, OCT 2013, "Apple Breaks the Mold", p. 152...

I would like to meet Jon Rubinstein, and buy him lunch.




Breezy Point Update...

This update from Cynthia Hill...  (read original blog entry HERE)

We left Wayland on Tuesday the 13th....raining, but with two tractor trailers filled to the brim - the 40' and the 53'!
We followed the little one and 4 firefighters from Ashby followed the big one to North Haven where we made a driver change - unions !!! Following these trucks thru Queens and Brooklyn was something else!
Our FDNY escort was waiting with lights flashing to take us over the bridge - the Rockaways - to Breezy Point. The sheer number of emergency vehicles was mind blowing, but none belonged to FEMA or the Red Cross!!! Mostly fire and National Guard, back hoes, front end loaders, fire hoses everywhere, and destruction everywhere.
This is a beach community made into a year-round community because fire, EMT's, and police have to live x number of miles from their assigned station and costs were off the the Rockaway area is now a year-round part of the city. Only problem is that the homes are on slabs or 2-3 foot foundations, and were swept aside by 15' storm surge - BOOM, and they were 100' from where they belonged - one house was split in two, and on the second floor the bed was still made ~ it looked more like tornados mixed with fire and up to 8' of sand left behind.
While the Guard emptied our mother lode, our firefighter Sean took us down to walk the beach....not near the fire, as it's still under a state of emergency, but passed the Army hummers parked on the sand....low tide is over a 1/4 mile from homes and its can picture the water coming toward you! We walked for a least a mile, some homes completely not there, just a piece of fence and a house number written in the sand - 206 I remember! Broken everything, everywhere and this was two weeks after the storm...huge piles of stoves, water heaters, car parts, stereos, furniture bits, then a house pretty much intact, but 6' of sand throughout...
No private companies allowed at that point - no water, no gas, no electric, no tools - you could see where everything we brought could and would be used. No insurance people in either...these people felt forgotten, and they had been.
David wants to go back Christmas Eve with nothing but toys, but we need to see what will help them doing badly as many are still not in school - well they're living there, but no teaching is being done! They are so displaced and sad... all their "things" are gone and you know how much covet their treasures.
Steve, please know that every single thing you and Spencer brought was in good hands within 2 days...everything was gone!
Only thing they don't need is I need to know what and when!
Hope you all had the best Thanksgiving.
Big hugs and a ton of thanks.
And more...
This was born yesterday, but we now have a 40 footer to take new toys to Breezy! They have an old traditional Christmas tree lighting that the entire community attends, and celebrates. When I called my civilian liaison, Theresa, yesterday she told me of the party then mentioned they had nothing to give the kids as holiday presents!!!
Their need has been for things to survive, but now it's time to care for the kids!
We are leaving Wayland on Friday, December 14th at 8am...hopefully with the 40' full of gifts, unwrapped.
We placed a maximum amount of $20.00 -$25.00 per gift. We didn't want to see one bike, or an IPhone show up...this way everything will be pretty much equal.
Suggestions only:
Age groups:
0-2 years            stuffed animals
3-6 years            Fisher - Price, and  Cabbage Patch  Dolls
7-9 years            Lego's - Barbie for the girls
10-13 years        Lego's
14+                   Sport's Equipment- footballs, baseball equipment(gloves, balls and bats), soccer balls and several portable nets
Two things to remember NO SPORTS TEAM LOGOS on sports equipment. These kids have absolutely nothing. NOTHING THAT REQUIRES ELECTRICITY, they have none!
Sports equipment works for all ages from 6 on...they are all very involved in sports.  We were even thinking that several of those movable basketball hoops would be great.
You and Spencer were so wonderful with our first load, we'd love it if you could spread the word for this Holiday trip!
Yes, we'll take checks - made payable to Cynthia Hill ~ I'll happily go shopping for these children who have no idea we're coming!
Steve and Spencer, thank you from me and from our Breezy Point friends. They really can't believe people care about them...
Read the attached Letter to the Editor!
Huge hugs,
And a letter to the editor written by Cynthia:

A journey to Breezy Point

To the residents of Wayland, and surrounding communities, the residents of Breezy Point NY, thank you.

They thank you for the two tractor trailer loads filled to the brim with generators, space heaters, work gloves, shovels, 22 wheelbarrows, pallets of bleach, electrical cords, boots, winter clothing for men, women and kids, diapers, pallets of paper towels and toilet paper, antibacterial gel, pet food, and so much more.

You loving brought cars, SUV's, and trucks full of necessities for our neighbors in New York who had nothing left after Hurricane Sandy. Stop & Shop, just days before they opened, not only donated the trucks, but drivers, gas, and their employees to help you unload your car...the General Manager, Mike Bussell, saw people in a horrific mess and along with his corporate team, when to work...he even made sure pallets of drinking water were in both trucks. Mike, also a volunteer Chief with the Ashby Fire Department, knew what these people needed after water, fire and up to 6 feet of sand swept away part or all of their homes.

I wish you could have seen the faces of the FDNY, National Guard and civilian volunteers as those huge trucks pulled in to an area still under a State of Emergency...we lifted the doors and people started to cry. With destruction everywhere they couldn't believe people cared about them....

A woman came up to me and told me I was her angel - I'm sure a few in town would disagree - now she could begin to dig out her house. I certainly wasn't her angel but I could hug her and let her know that so many wonderful people cared what happened to her, that we'd be there for Breezy.

The people of Breezy Point are a strong, proud and caring community, but looking around me, I couldn't imagine what courage it would take to keep going day after day.

It's been almost a month now ~ Breezy still has no electricity and all must leave before dark. You've probably heard about the looting, Theresa tells me it's not too bad. What do you mean "not too bad" I shouted to myself, you've worked for days to find odds and ends of your life, and someone steals it!

As the sun set on Breezy Point, November 13th 2012, several of us knew we'd be back, with whatever they needed, whenever they needed it.

Thank you for all that you've done, and all that we have left to do.

Cynthia Hill, the Breezy Point Project



A pictoral history of cell phones...

Please check out an excellent graphical history of the cell phone entitled "evolution of the mobile phone by docomo".  Watch for when all the antennas become internal.